MINNEAPOLIS -- The Winnipeg Ice of the Western Hockey League made it clear to a pair of 14-year-old Minnesotans -- Jayson Shaugabay from Warroad and Beckett Hendrickson from Minnetonka -- that they are interested in having that pair play major junior hockey in Canada someday.
Shaugabay and Hendrickson (who is the son of former Minnesota Mr. Hockey winner, Minnesota Gopher and Minnesota Wild player and assistant coach Darby Hendrickson) were selected by the Ice in the first and second rounds, respectively, in the WHL’s first U.S. Prospect Draft, held in late March.
Both players will also have college hockey programs interested in their on-ice abilities, and their skills in the classroom. But due to new NCAA rules on recruiting, neither Shaugabay nor Hendrickson will hear of any official interest from college hockey programs until after the next Christmas.
In an effort to limit the number of young teenagers committing to colleges, and recruiting wars that had been getting younger and younger, the NCAA has instituted rules that prohibit colleges from contacting a player prior to Jan. 1 of their sophomore year of high school. And a player cannot commit to a college prior to Aug. 1 heading into their junior year.
Shaugabay is a distant cousin of former University of North Dakota star T.J. Oshie, now with the Washington Capitals, and has made it clear that college hockey is his first choice. But he won’t be talking to any colleges for another seven months. By contrast, WHL teams started calling early in Shaugabay’s freshman year of high school.
“I understand why the NCAA changed their rules, and maybe that’s why the WHL changed their rules,” said Darrell “Son” Shaugabay, Jayson’s father. “They can have 18 months to 26 months of recruiting these kids before a college can even talk to you, and that in a way is unfair. We know some colleges are interested in Jayson, but we don’t know at what level, and we won’t know for 15 months (after the first contact by WHL teams). I wish we had the ability to talk to the colleges and know where you are.”
Some of the state’s high school coaches preach patience, and note that the new NCAA rules were put in place to avoid having to make adult decisions at a such an early age.
“In my experience with players, if you’re being recruited by the WHL, it is clearly obvious that you’re capable of playing NCAA Division I hockey in the future,” said Minnetonka high school coach Sean Goldsworthy. “There’s really no need to panic or even be concerned about whether you’ll get attention from a specific NCAA program.”
While major junior teams sell themselves to potential players as a quicker route to the NHL, College Hockey, Inc. was created as a way to sell the benefits -- on the ice and in the classroom -- of the NCAA route, and has been viewed as a great success. In the 2018-19 season, fully one-third of the players in the NHL had gotten there after playing college hockey, which was an all-time high. While the WHL emphasizes a more NHL-style game (which is generally much more physical) and a schedule of roughly twice as many games as colleges play, NCAA hockey backers feel those differences are negligible.
“I hear people talk about how the CHL teams play 72 games and it’s more of a pro schedule,” said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey, Inc. “I’ve never heard the Boston Celtics’ general manager suggest that he really likes a guard from Duke, but he only played 38 games last year. I’ve never heard the Green Bay Packers’ GM say, ‘man, that quarterback at Alabama really excites me, but he only played 11 games.’ I don’t know why so many people think that’s important.”
College coaches, while acknowledging the WHL’s head start in the recruiting wars via their new draft specifically aimed at American kids, stand by their combination of hockey development and preparation for life after hockey as better overall.
“They want to get into a bantam draft, a young draft, and that’s a pretty dangerous game to play for us and them. But I still think our way of doing business, getting an education, and playing an unbelievable level of hockey to advance your career both academically and from a hockey standpoint is going to win out all the time,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko. “Am I worried? No I’m not. We could end up losing someone because of that, but over time we’ve become successful because we do things the right way. I just feel that’s going to win out. Not a rule, not a bantam draft, not a peewee draft. We’re going to win out because education at an awful high level and playing college hockey is going to win out. I’m not worried.”
Other coaches stress that the new rules are better not only for the colleges, who don’t need to risk offering a scholarship to a very young player -- when much can change for them from age 14 to age 18 -- and for the the players themselves, who have more time to explore their options and are not pressured into making a decision too early. St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson said they also sell the once-in-a-lifetime lifestyle of a student-athlete and all of the official and unofficial perks that go along with it. During the two seasons he was an assistant coach and recruiter at Ohio State, Larson painted the contrast between the NCAA lifestyle and the major junior lifestyle very vividly.
“We always tell kids that if you have a Saturday off in the fall, in the WHL you can play video games at a mall somewhere in Saskatchewan, or in college you can go to a football game with 10,000 girls,” Larson said during his time with the Buckeyes.
Since more than one Minnesotan has left the state for the WHL while still in high school, there is some concern that major junior programs establishing more of a presence in the state could hurt high school hockey. Community arenas in Minnesota as revered as the hometown basketball gyms in Indiana and the massive high school football stadiums in Texas, so others feel that the quality of the Minnesota high school hockey product, the nationally-renowned Minnesota State Hockey Tournament and the number of Minnesota high schoolers who make their way to the NHL are evidence that there is no need for too much concern about the WHL.
“I don’t think we’re seeing it as a threat. Our development model has been one of the best in the country, if not in the world, so I think players know that they’re being taken care of in Minnesota,” said Mike MacMillan, the executive director of the Minnesota Hockey Coaches Association, and an assistant coach for the men’s hockey program at Hamline University in St. Paul. “They have an unbelievable opportunity to be seen and the evidence has shown that playing high school hockey and finishing high school hockey before moving on to college is a way to success in the NHL.”
USA Hockey officials from the National Team Development Program note that even getting Minnesota high school players to leave the state for their Michigan-based all-star team, which does not negatively affect a player’s NCAA eligibility, is a challenge. At least two of the more recent Mr. Hockey winners -- Riley Tufte from Blaine in 2016 and Blake Biondi from Hermantown this past season -- have turned down invites from USA Hockey in order to stay home, play for their high school team alongside their lifelong friends, and try to win a state championship before moving on to college.
Major junior teams are openly taking a greater interest in Minnesota’s talent pool, and will likely continue to attract an occasional player to western Canada for the unique brand of hockey they offer. But the general feeling is all that has made high school and college hockey successful in the state for so long is not going away anytime soon.
“If we keep doing our job providing a good platform and opportunities for player development, we’ll be just fine,” MacMillan said.