Maybe it's just because it's the summer, and a particularly down time in the summer with no major roster moves happening as teams gear up for the season, but Jordan Schmaltz's commitment to Wisconsin seemed to get an inordinate amount of press last week. Greg Wyshynski of the Yahoo blog Puck Daddy had a long write-up on Schmaltz and Illegal Curve also weighed in.
The thing is, Schmaltz's commitment isn't all that unique. Schmaltz was about 14 years 10 months old when he made his commitment. Cam Fowler, Jon Merrill, and Connor Anthoine were all younger than Schmaltz when they committed to a college, plus a slew of players that committed just a few months after their 15th birthday. Schmaltz may be the youngest academically, not having started the 9th grade yet since his birthday falls after the usual September cut-off, but in hockey terms, Wisconsin at least had a chance to see him participate in the National Select 15 Festival against the best in his age group, compared to ten or so players that committed to a college before ever having that opportunity.
Of course the fact that this is slowly becoming standard practice doesn't necessarily make it right. But before people think this is a college hockey problem, look elsewhere in the hockey world. Next April he could be presented with an opportunity to move away from home and spend the next two seasons with the US National Development Program. Next May, Schmaltz will eligible for the Ontario Hockey League draft. If he lived 200 miles west of his hometown of Verona, he could have already been selected by a Western Hockey League team(though he would have been restricted in the number of games he could have played this season).
These are major decisions that many top players his age are forced to make, and can be equally as important and life-changing as which college he attends years from now. His decision regarding the CHL is particularly important because signing any sort of agreement with the team, or participating in any sort of competition would void his eligibility for NCAA hockey. If a player is forced to choose between going to college or not, he should at least be allowed to also make the choice of which college he attends.
A 14-year-old committing to a college may look strange to some people, but ultimately, there's no real victim here. True, these commitments technically aren't binding, but it's pretty much a given that the college will honor it, and very rarely does a player switch a commitment to another college. Most college hockey leagues have a standing gentleman's agreement to not recruit players that have already committed to a college, so the team's investment is protected, and the player doesn't have to deal with the hassle of constant phone calls and text messages. So if it isn't causing any problems, why change it?
Meanwhile, Todd Milewski points out that the National Association of Basketball Coaches has asked coaches not to give out scholarships until after a player's sophomore year of high school, and suggest that perhaps the American Hockey Coaches Association could do the same.
It's an interesting idea, but one that I think is more necessary for basketball than it is for hockey. The move in basketball, I believe, was to take some of the power away from AAU teams and give it back to high school programs. I don't think hockey has had problems with AAA hockey programs in the same way basketball has had problems with more commercial AAU teams. Also, most young hockey players in that position are getting advice from a family advisor who is also a certified professional agent, whereas with many young basketball players, it's far more common to see shady figures with no professional background trying to make a quick buck by guiding these players.
The AHCA certainly could do something about it. It's usually a topic of discussion at the annual coaches meetings in Florida in every year, but while many coaches agree that maybe something should be done, nobody has really been willing to step up and push serious changes through.
So these young commitments are likely here to stay for the foreseeable future. It may not look right to casual observers, but it's quickly becoming part of the game.