On a frigid morning in Roseau, Minnesota in 1978, Paul Broten glanced out the front window of the family home. It was before 8 a.m. on the first day a prospective student-athlete could sign a NCAA letter of intent.
Parked on the driveway was Herb Brooks, a titan in the hockey world and head coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Brooks had arrived early to officially ink Paul’s oldest brother Neal, the most coveted recruit in the State of Hockey, to a scholarship.
“Back then,” says Paul, who one day would follow Neal to Minnesota, “we were just happy to go there. We didn’t think about it as money, or saving money for our parents. We just wanted to go play for the Gophers. We just wanted to play hockey.”
Paul admits his heart sank a little bit when he heard the recent news that his alma mater received verbal commitments from two brothers. Cruz and Chaz Lucius, ages 13 and 14, respectively, are the youngest players to ever commit to play for Minnesota’s “Pride on Ice.”
The siblings, who attend Gentry Academy in Vadnais Heights, announced their verbal commitments via the specialized sports school’s Twitter account.
“My first thought was: Wow! That’s too young,” Broten says. “At what age do you stop? Do you start recruiting kids at 10? What happens when you commit to them and something happens? They get hurt or they’re not a Division I player? What do you do then? You committed to them at age 13.”
According to the NCAA website, a student can announce a verbal commitment “at any time.” However, it also says “verbal commitments” are not binding... Only the signing of the National Letter of Intent… is binding on both parties.”
Gopher alum Ben Hankinson followed his older brother Peter from Edina High to playing at Mariucci Arena. Hankinson committed to Minnesota about halfway through his senior year.
“Unfortunately, it’s kind of the way the business is done now, programs locking up kids so young,” he says. “There’s no guidelines around it because hockey is getting so more serious at younger levels.
“There’s competition with [Canada’s junior] Western Hockey League. Agents are getting involved because the schools are pushing ‘em. The United States Hockey League is getting kids out of high school now. Everything is happening so much faster.”
Call it the youth arms race. Player development is pushed by coaches and parents with kids barely out of kindergarten.
As a result, teams like the Gophers are now scouting kids who are a year removed from elementary school. And they’re doing the verbal commitment thing with players younger and younger out of the fear another program will beat them to it.
“I don’t think it’s good at all,” Hankinson says. “… It’s just not healthy. It puts more pressure on the kids. The parents now see dollar signs sooner. The parents, obviously, would love to see their kid’s education paid for. So if someone is giving you a couple hundred-thousand-dollar education and a degree on a handshake now, you can understand why they’re committing too. But I also think kids at that age should be having fun playing pure hockey.”
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