September 5, 2013

The face of recruiting in college hockey

By Dan Guttenplan

Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy reviews recruiting notes. (Photo: Dave Arnold/NEHJ)

When Mark Dennehy begins talking about recruiting in college hockey, one can almost feel the Merrimack College coach’s blood pressure rising.

“Recruiting in general is insane,” Dennehy said. “I don’t know how else to describe it. People ask me, ‘Are you done recruiting yet?’ I ask them what year they’re talking about. I’m never done recruiting.”

Dennehy has seen recruiting from every perspective of New England hockey. The 46-year-old Dorchester, Mass., native starred at BC High before playing at Boston College from 1987 to 1991. He started his coaching career as an assistant at Princeton in 1994 and worked his way through programs like Fairfield College and UMass before taking over as the Merrimack College head coach in 2005-06.

Since then, Dennehy has led the program to unprecedented success, turning a struggling outfit into a perennial contender in Hockey East. In 2011-12, he lifted the program to its first No. 1 national ranking in school history and its second straight winning season in Hockey East. In 2010-11, Merrimack reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1998 after playing in the Hockey East championship for the first time ever.

Despite his team’s recent success, Dennehy longs for the old days when recruiting was a competition among geographical rivals.

“My senior year at BC High, we had eight Division 1 hockey players,” Dennehy said. “(Catholic Conference rival) Catholic Memorial had seven or eight. It was like that with every team in the conference, and BC and (Boston University) were going after all of us. That’s not the way it is anymore. Now, there are so many opportunities, if a non-NHL team has three Division 1 hockey players on one roster, it’s a lot. As a recruiter, you have to go where the talent goes. Not only do you have to look all over North America, you have to look international.”

Dennehy finds himself chasing New England natives playing in leagues from Sweden, to all parts of Canada, to Texas. Adding to the degree of difficulty of Dennehy’s limited recruiting budget is the fact that he’s competing against hockey giants like Boston College, UNH and UMaine in Hockey East, only the playing field is hardly level due to his school’s enrollment of less than 2,000 undergraduate students compared to around 15,000 for the other hockey powerhouses.

Not one to make excuses, Dennehy formulated a plan upon his hire at Merrimack to compete against the top teams in the nation.

“It starts with an understanding of your college’s strengths and weaknesses,” Dennehy said. “First, we started with the style of play we wanted to put into play. We looked at a program like Cornell, and based our program on good goaltending, in-your-face hockey, and a strong defensive posture. That gives us a chance. I don’t know many schools that can trade chances with BC or Minnesota, so we have to work with limited chances, capitalizing on our opportunities and power plays.”

Recognizing that Merrimack’s ideal style of play may not appeal to blue-chip college hockey prospects who make commitments as freshmen or sophomores in high school, Dennehy established somewhat of a “Money Ball” approach. He recruited older, more mature players. Entering this season, Merrimack’s average age is 22.12 years old.

“Our sheet in our rink is a little bit smaller than other Hockey East schools,” Dennehy said. “If we get some bigger bodies, it gets crowded. That inhibits free-wheeling hockey. That gives us direction.”

Despite his preference for older players, Dennehy has never insisted that a high school senior continue his career at a prep school or juniors to further develop his game.

“I don’t believe in that,” Dennehy said. “In the current landscape, there’s no such thing as de-commiting to a school. I can go after a 14-year-old or a 20-year-old. There are pluses and minuses at both ends. I might have an opportunity to recruit a 14-year-old that is far and away better than his peers. The question is whether he’s emotionally and socially able to make that decision. Or will he get older and regret it or decommit? Maybe he’ll come to the realization he doesn’t want to play college hockey. So my philosophy is to go after the 20-year-old, even though his talent level may have leveled out.”

Just over 400 miles west of Merrimack College, Wayne Wilson is met with a similar challenge as the head coach of Rochester Institute of Technology. In his 14th year at RIT, Wilson is trying to level the playing field with the Boston Colleges and Minnesotas of the world, only he’s operating with a budget that includes zero athletic scholarship money.

Competing in Atlantic Hockey, RIT has found a way to occasionally trade punches with the top programs in the nation. Since Wilson took over in 1999, RIT has made the jump from NCAA Division 3 to Division 1. Over the last six seasons, RIT has posted a cumulative record of 145-90-30 while making three straight trips to the Atlantic Hockey conference tournament finals from 2010 to 2012. Wilson earned Division 1 National Coach of the Year honors in 2010 after leading the Atlantic Hockey champion RIT squad to the Frozen Four.

Regardless of the accolades Wilson collects in his tenure at RIT, he knows, as a recruiter, he will forever be operating from the position of underdog.

“The bigger schools used to be territorial, but now they’re finding the elite kids all over the world,” Wilson said. “Hidden gems are harder to find. The bigger schools go after the younger guys, so we tend to be a little older. We’re not going to win any of those battles for the 15-year-old scholarship players. We’re looking for someone who hasn’t been coddled his whole life — but a good player in his own right.”

The average age for an RIT player heading into this season is 22.08. The team is comprised of a collection of athletes from all over the world, including 14 from Canada, while only three are from New York.

“If we have more Canadians than we used to, it’s not by design,” Wilson said. “I’m going after the best players, regardless of where they’re from. Our players tend to be older, and they also tend to be four-year players. If you get a really good player, he might be one and done (before turning professional). They hurt those programs when they leave because the school has put so much into recruiting them.”

Despite the fact that he has no scholarship money to offer, Wilson never rules out a potential recruit. In the past, he has landed recruits who he initially dismissed believing they were out of his league.

“We all miss kids, there’s no question about it,” Wilson. “But you always have to try. You might assume a kid will follow his brother to another school, and then he ends up carving out his own path at one of our rival schools. We don’t have the budget of a BC, so we have restrictions. When we go out west or to Canada, we have to plan two weeks ahead. We’ll try to see multiple kids on the same trip. A bigger school might fly across the country on a day’s notice if they really like a kid.”

‘I always wanted to get an education combined with hockey’

When it comes to recruiting in college hockey, there is more than one way to skin a cat, and perhaps there is no better example of that than Merrimack College incoming freshmen Hampus Gustafsson and Chris LeBlanc (Winthrop, Mass.).

Besides the fact that they have both played hockey for most of their respective their lives, Gustafsson and LeBlanc have little else in common. Gustafsson comes to Merrimack by way of Sweden, where he played with the Troja Ljungby organization for five years. After graduating from high school, Gustafsson came to America in pursuit of his dream of playing college hockey. He enrolled at Gilmour Academy Prep School in Ohio, and played for the hockey team for two seasons.

At the age of 20, Gustafsson had yet to receive a single offer from a Division 1 coach, so he went to Texas to play in the North American Hockey League for the Emery Bulls. Finally, after a solid season, Gustafsson received and accepted an offer last winter from Merrimack, where his brother, John, was making a contribution as a freshman.

“It’s not really common in Sweden to want to play hockey at an American college,” Gustafsson said. “The biggest dream for Swedish players is to play in Swedish elite leagues. I always wanted to get an education combined with hockey, and I knew I had to come to the U.S. to do it. Merrimack is the only school I received an offer from. With my brother here, it was a no-brainer.”

On the other hand, LeBlanc’s path to Merrimack seems more natural on the surface, as his hometown is no more than 25 miles from the college. LeBlanc (right) starred at Winthrop High as an underclassman, earning an opportunity to transfer to Salisbury School, a prep school in Connecticut. He chose to stay at his hometown public high school and carried the team to the sectional finals as a senior.

Even after eclipsing the 100-point mark for his career — including 46 as a senior — LeBlanc received very little interest from Division 1 coaches. He chose to play juniors with the South Shore Kings in the EJHL for a year in hopes of boosting his stock.

“Clearly, it was a lot better competition,” LeBlanc said. “In retrospect, I probably would have benefitted a little more at Salisbury than Winthrop if I wanted to get recruited out of high school. But I would still do it the same way.”

Dennehy followed much of LeBlanc’s career at Winthrop but hesitated to offer a roster spot because he was unsure of whether LeBlanc’s stellar play was a result of the watered-down competition. He scouted LeBlanc again for a weekend when the forward was with the South Shore Kings, and became sold after seeing him record seven points.

“I’d watch Chris’ level of play in high school and wonder if my eyes were fooling me,” Dennehy said. “He was the best player on the ice every night. I didn’t make the commitment until he went and played juniors. Once he had those seven points, I said, ‘No, my eyes aren’t fooling me.’ When a kid scores a goal in the EJHL, it translates a little easier. You make fewer mistakes by waiting. You don’t want to bring in kids who aren’t competing for ice time.”

‘Nobody really wanted me’

Dennehy and Wilson focus much of their recruiting on older players — 20- or 21-year-old freshmen who have been passed over by college coaches as high-schoolers. Certainly, that comes with its share of risk. Older players have less room to grow, they may plateau in college, and they tend to come with a little more wear and tear.

However, both coaches have found older players are often hungrier. They’ve traveled the world to find teams that will have them on their roster. They’ve delayed the rest of their lives in exchange for a few more years of hockey, knowing full well they may never get the chance to play in college.

RIT sophomore Alexander Kuqali has never been selected in a draft — not NHL, not USHL, not even Midget Major. After playing hockey through high school in Pittsburgh, he didn’t get so much as a sniff from college recruiters, so he attended an open tryout for the Indiana Ice in the USHL.

“Nobody really wanted me,” Kuqali said. “I’ve always wanted to play hockey as long as I could. That’s the thing that drives me.”

That desire to keep playing kept Kuqali (right) in the USHL for the maximum allotted eligibility limit of three years with Indiana and the Sioux City Musketeers. In his final season in the USHL, he received an offer from RIT, and he signed on for four more years of hockey. Last season, as a freshman, Kuqali earned Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Month for December.

“Some people are stars,” Kuqali said. “I was never drafted in any league. I’m just a guy from a tryout who made the team. I was able to get here from there.”

Kuqali’s classmate, Dan Schuler, is the first RIT Division 1 recruit from the greater Rochester area (Webster, N.Y.). Although he played his high school hockey right under the nose of the RIT staff, he received very little interest from any Division 1 coaches after his senior year.

Schuler decided to continue his career in the British Columbia Hockey League with the Powell River Kings. He recorded 68 points over two seasons before earning his roster spot with RIT.

“I didn’t necessarily want to play in Canada,” Schuler said. “I thought I could play Division 1 hockey out of boarding school. The way I thought about it was it’s just more hockey. That’s something I love doing.”

‘I don’t want to be second fiddle’

In the world of college hockey recruiting, it seems that, with the exception of the very top players in the world, the coaches hold the cards. The recruiters can be patient, giving the players time to grow, mature and develop their respective games, so that when they arrive on campus, they are ready to contribute immediately.

In some cases, it seems that the longer the college coach waits to make an offer, the more the player will appreciate the opportunity.

“Schools like ours want kids who want to be here,” Wilson said. “If I call a kid, and he says, ‘Hold on, I’m waiting to hear from BC,’ I don’t know if I really want him. He could be thinking that, but please don’t tell me. Coming here might not be what he set out to do in high school, but I want him to come and appreciate the experience. I don’t want to be second fiddle.”

Just because a college hockey hopeful doesn’t receive an offer from a college coach after high school, it doesn’t mean he’s flying under the radar. David MacDonald founded a consulting company in Nova Scotia, Canada, for families of hockey players looking to parlay hockey into educational opportunities. In visiting with college coaches around the United States, MacDonald has found that coaches begin looking at players as young as 13.

“It’s not unusual when I walk into a coach’s office to see recruiting boards for the incoming classes of 2014 to 2021,” MacDonald said. “If you back that up, they’re looking for seven different classes of kids who might be anywhere from 13 to 21.”

While hockey recruits may feel at times as if they’re placing their future in the hands of college coaches, it isn’t all bad news. The college hockey hopefuls get to play the sport they love into their mid-20s, while non-professional athletes who specialize in other sports have long since entered Corporate America.

“I don’t think people realize that the average life expectancy is 76,” Schuler (above right) said. “When I decided to put off college, I knew I had plenty of time to figure stuff out, whether hockey worked out or not. People ask me if I resent the fact that I had to go to Canada to play hockey for two years to prove myself. Two more years of hockey is always better than the alternative.”

Photos: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal (Dennehy, LeBlanc); RIT Athletics (Schuler, Wilson, Kuqali); Merrimack Athletics (McCarthy)

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @Dan_Guttenplan