October 28, 2021
Sports Column

Youth not served by early signing

Two 15-year-old kids have made verbal commitments to join the University of Maine hockey program – beginning in 2010.

These early decisions are all above board, all within NCAA recruiting guidelines, and Maine certainly isn’t alone in playing this recruiting futures game.

It’s a practice also not confined to college hockey.

Perhaps the most celebrated decision of the sort was made by Damon Bailey, an Indiana schoolboy basketball star who verbally committed to Indiana University as an eighth-grader – a case chronicled in John Feinstein’s book “A Season on the Brink.”

But for most high school-age athletes, such verbal commitments come much closer to their actual graduation date, enabling the teen and his parents the chance to explore as many options as possible before settling on the best fit.

No one’s here to question the wisdom of any family opting to make an earlier decision.

Each of the 15-year-old UMaine prospects, defenseman Kevin Gagne of New Brunswick and Stuart Higgins, a center from northern Michigan, already is deeply invested in the sport and each competes in an elite youth league.

Each already has decided to see how far the sport will take him, and a college scholarship is a fine start.

But given all that, it still makes me a little uneasy to see colleges dip into the freshman and sophomore classes of high school in an effort to lock up that next Hobey Baker Award winner.

It just seems like one more grain lost in the erosion of the opportunity to be a kid. Adolescence passes by so fast these days, and the accelerator seemingly is stuck on the floor.

College hockey has always had a different personnel aura about it, in great part the result of competition for top talent from Major Junior leagues. That’s a challenge not faced by basketball or football recruiters.

With that additional competition, and the reality some junior players find their way back to the college hockey ranks when their pro aspirations aren’t so easily fulfilled, it’s not all that unusual to see 25-year-old seniors playing in the Frozen Four next to 17- or 18-year-old freshmen.

College hockey is feeling an increased squeeze these days from those Major Junior programs, which are making their own educational arrangements for recruits. That gives young phenoms yet another option to develop their game and maximize their individual potential, while college coaches must keep ahead of the changes or inevitably risk their job security.

So the recruiting wars dig deeper.

Much can change between the time any 15-year-old makes a verbal commitment to a college program and the day years later when he opens his first textbook. Injury, academic issues and the coaching carousel all can alter the relationship between recruit and school, not to mention the dream of being drafted by the NHL when the youngster reaches the ripe old age of 18.

In reaching out to younger players, the University of Maine and other programs are doing what they feel they have to do in an attempt to remain among college hockey’s elite, both this year and for many winters to come.

And if the verbal commitments of talented 15-year-olds like Gagne and Higgins pay off in five or six years, all Black Bear fans will join in the celebration as another trophy is raised.

But not everyone has to like every step along that route.



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