Austin Plevy left Merrimack on Friday, but he signed a National Letter of Intent. Inside we explore what could be next
Ed. Note: Columns are opinionated pieces based on a reporter’s learned information. The following column was written by The Mack Report founder and managing editor, Mike McMahon
The National Letter of Intent (NLI) is an important tool. For some schools, especially smaller colleges like Merrimack, it’s one of the only tools that guarantees a player honors his verbal commitment, by putting pen to paper.
College athletics is absolutely an elitist environment. Don’t let anyone tell you different. The rich often get richer, and richer, and then even richer. Some teams have found ways to even the playing field in recent years – Quinnipiac and Union have made strides in the ECAC, with Union even winning a national title – but the fact remains that college hockey’s traditional powers have long been in those top positions. Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Boston College, etc. You know the names.
Football has Alabama, LSU and Texas. Basketball has Duke, UConn and Florida.
And that’s OK. I guess you could call it capitalism.
Given the situation Merrimack currently finds itself in – freshman Austin Plevy left the team on Friday, and according to sources, is not planning on returning to Merrimack – puts the program on the forefront of college hockey’s next big debate: the value of an honored commitment.
The concept of “de-committing” has increased exponentially the past decade. When NCAA coaches met in Florida this past April, some expressed their intent to no longer honor verbal commitments, and said they plan on recruiting a player until he signs an NLI.
There are a number of factors that go into the increased number of de-committments. Players are committing younger than ever before and there are family advisors – agents – who also provide their opinion. Some programs are putting so much pressure on a player, they feel the need to commit at 14 years old. Or maybe their teammates are all doing it. Regardless, it’s way too young. Most 14 year olds can’t decide what shirt to wear to school, let alone where they want to attend college.
The NLI is a guarantee. It’s a contract. That’s why it can’t be signed until a player is a senior in high school. By signing an NLI, a player agrees to attend an institution for one year in exchange for the institution’s promise, in writing, to provide the player with athletics financial aid for the entire academic year.
Asking a college to break an NLI so the player could sign elsewhere is the equivalent of an NHL player asking out of his contract to go play for another team.
For Merrimack, and a number of other smaller schools, allowing an NLI release is just putting up a self-inflicted roadblock. The NLI is the only tool those programs have that guarantees a committed player arrives on campus.
This isn’t just a Merrimack issue, it’s an issue across college hockey for Merrimack, and schools like Merrimack.
“Smaller school” shouldn’t be viewed as a negative, either. Some players prefer it. Smaller class sizes, more opportunity for playing time and a more relaxed environment, away from the sights and sounds of a big city. But the fact remains that there are big schools, and there are small schools, both in geographical size as well as endowment.
The NLI prevents a top recruit from being poached at the last minute by a star-studded program who happened to lose a top-line player to the NHL and suddenly had an open spot.
Why Plevy left Merrimack, and ultimately wants out of the NLI, is unknown at this point. It’s likely though that playing college hockey is still his plan for the future. He returned to the Brooks Bandits this weekend and at 19 years old, would be nearing the end of his Major Junior career if he decided to go that route.
Plevy’s options are limited. In order to satisfy the NLI, a player must complete one academic year at the school they signed, and that didn’t happen. Plevy was enrolled in summer classes, and according to sources even tried to back out of his commitment prior to reporting in the summer, but he did not complete a full academic year.
According to NLI rules, that means he’ll have to sit out one season at any new institution, and lose a year of competition.
Ultimately, that seems like it’s his plan. If Major Junior isn’t an option, Plevy’s only choices are to attempt to play college hockey elsewhere, or play out his eligibility in Jr. A hockey and then turn pro.
My guess – and this is purely speculation – he must have plans to enroll elsewhere. If that’s the case, it could open up another can of worms. Once a player signs an NLI, other schools are required to no longer recruit that player, and doing so is a violation. Though proving there was contact between the player and a potential team while the NLI was signed would be difficult, it’s just another wrinkle in what has become a rather confusing story.
The bottom line is this: Merrimack cannot allow players to get out of their NLI without adhering to the penalties. No school should, especially programs that are trying to compete with the elite of the elite.
Merrimack isn’t the first program to face the issue. Last season, Northeastern denied Michael Szmatula’s request to break his NLI in order to attend Denver, where his junior coach, Jim Montgomery, was named head coach the previous spring.
Northeastern held its ground and Szmatula ultimately decided to attend, scoring 39 points in 37 games last season as a freshman.
Granting a release without some sort of extenuating circumstance would set a dangerous precedent for Merrimack or any other school.
It’s not even the first time Merrimack has lost a top-end recruit late in the process. Two years ago, Wade Murphy de-committed in August and just weeks later committed to the University of North Dakota. However, Murphy had not signed an NLI and was able to de-commit without any consequence.
Merrimack has to hold its ground here, and I think it will.
Granting a release devalues the entire NLI process. In the long run, it tells other players that committing doesn’t really require any sort of commitment.
Players aren’t forced into these agreements. Even if a player is about to receive a full scholarship for four years, it’s his choice whether or not he wants to sign an NLI. It’s not even required.
If a player isn’t totally on board with his school choice, he shouldn’t sign the contract. Plain and simple.
At some point this slippery slope needs to level off. Recruiting in hockey, and most other sports, has become the Wild West, with some programs accepting, and even promoting, total anarchy when it comes to gentlemen agreements and even papered NLI contracts.
Merrimack needs to do its part the time around and adhere to the terms of the signed NLI, and I believe they will. Really, it’s their only option.
Mike McMahon covers Merrimack College for The Eagle Tribune and is the founder and managing editor of The Mack Report as well as on staff as a senior writer at College Hockey News. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcMahonCHN