They barely turned off the lights inside TD Garden Thursday night when the Michigan hockey team began to disintegrate in the wake of losing overtime to Denver at the men’s Frozen Four.
Owen Power, #1 overall in last year’s NHL draft, moved to Buffalo. Kent Johnson, fifth choice, signed with Columbus. The countdown has already begun for Hingham native Mattie Beners, the second-choice pick who is expected to join Seattle, and Luke Hughes, the No. 4 likely tied to New Jersey.
There will almost certainly be many early departures after Jeffers lost to Minnesota State. This is in addition to the 20 other undergraduates who have already given up their eligibility, eight of whom are from Massachusetts schools.
April’s exodus to the pros is nothing new. But it is now just a prelude to what will be an annual talent migration to other college programs as new transfer rules allow hockey players and those from other major sports to switch teams without having to sit out for a year.
Not that the NCAA is happy about what amounts to free agency but that it has had to accept that its control over what athletes can and cannot do is waning.
“The courts have said that our business model as we’ve known it for many years is not likely to work and remittances are part of that,” said NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton, whose major powers conference includes Denver, North Dakota and Minnesota. Duluth, who won 19 titles between them.
The combination of early NHL signings, transfers and an additional year of eligibility given players due to COVID has led to an unprecedented mass movement this season as more than 150 players have changed teams.
“It was no brainer,” said Denver winger Cameron Wright, who played for four years at Bowling Green before signing for the transfer team. Like being a student. You are the new kid in the building. You step in and let the leaders lead and learn from them how this program works.”
Even before next month’s deadline to enter the transfer gate, nearly 50 players have committed to joining new teams for next season, and nearly 170 players are hoping to make it elsewhere.
“The horses will probably not be brought back to the barn,” said Fenton, president of the Assn Hockey Commission. “What we can hope for and what we’re working on is that we can add some barriers around transfers so it’s less about Wild, Wild West. Can we protect some integrity of the roster from year to year? But to think that we’re going back to an environment where we can restrict the student athlete from taking This decision to relocate, I don’t think this will be there in the future.”
When movement was limited, coaches had little to worry about losing players to other programmes. But as the college game is more competitive than ever, the upside to a quick upgrade can be crucial.
“It’s getting to the end of the year and there are a growing number of teams that can win it all,” said Eastern Hockey Commissioner Steve Metcalfe. “The difference between 1 and 10 and 2 and 17 is getting smaller and smaller.”
So what will happen when the poaching begins, when the trainer makes a second round in a recruit who has gone elsewhere but probably wishes he hadn’t? Or when new programs choose to take the fast track toward respectability by bringing in someone else’s 25-year-old?
Metcalf predicted that “the relationship between coaches from one league to another and within the same league will collapse.” “Because of what happens with the movement of children.”
Coaches can’t eliminate transfers and they don’t want to. Minnesota State, who meet Denver in the championship game on Saturday night, benefited greatly from three new players that are forwards David Seely (Clarkson), Josh Grohl (Michigan) and defender Benton Maas (New Hampshire).
The Mavericks, who only have one NHL recruit in center Nathan Smith, don’t have the same concern about team defections as Michigan. But this does not mean that they are immune to professional clubs signing their players as free agents.
“When a kid is recruited, he has to deal with one team,” said Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings. “The free agent gets 32. We’ve been dealing with this here for the past few years. We have kids who have chances to sign NHL contracts. They’re the ones driving the bus. We want to be there to help them with this decision-making process, but at the end of the day it’s very difficult.” Looking at a young man and telling him that he cannot pursue his dream.”