Column: Merrimack Must Hold Its Ground on NLIs

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.

It’s unprecedented.

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

20 Comments

  1. Great read. Possibly there should be an age limit, for example you cannot commit a player until he is of a certain age.
    Schools have ways to drop a player off the team when they want with no penalty, But if a player leaves a team he/she must face a penalty?
    I dont see Merrimack or other schools sitting out a year of competition.
    Seems pretty one-sided.

    • The NLI is supposed to institute a limit, of sorts, where you can’t sign until your senior year.

      The larger issue here is that there was a signed NLI. If Merrimack decided to drop Plevy, for example, right now, they would still have to pay his financial aid for one academic year, because that’s what is agreed to under the contract.

      The transfer rules are there to prevent players from starting at a small school, excelling and then bolting.

      The NLI rules are cut and dry. Like I said, if MC wanted to cut Plevy, as we’ll use an example, right now, then they still have to pay his scholarship for one year. Similarly, Plevy is obligated to play at Merrimack for one year.

      No one forced the player to sign the NLI. It’s not required. This is, essentially, breaching a contract.

      • A hockey player goes to school to play hockey, these athletes are chasing down a dream and college is a means to that end. The degree is simply a cherry on top.
        If Merrimack breaches contract and drops Plevy, sure he gets his school paid for but thats not the main reason he is there. These men come here to play hockey in hopes of playing professional. If Merrimack drops the player, he now has to wait a year before he can play somewhere else? So the player gets screwed in this deal too.
        Besides would you want a player who doesnt want to be there or be apart of the team? If Merrimack does “hold its ground”, i personally believe it will be simply because they’re sour and its all they can do to punish the kid. Let him go, move on.

        I believe Plevy should have some punishment for breaching contract, but i think the rules here protect one side more than the other. The way the rules are set up for the NCAA right now could be better, and i hope this problem gets addressed and both players/institutions benefit from it.

        Merrimack had a player decommit a few years ago because he wanted something better. He had 3 points in his freshman year.

        -just my thought.

        • Agree to disagree, I guess. If MC, or any school, just commonly releases NLIs, then why even have the NLI program?

          Also, I believe if a player is cut he doesn’t have to sit a year. There is an appeal they can file with the NCAA and I believe there are examples of this. So if a player is cut, he isn’t punished at all from moving on.

          Again, it’s not an issue if he didn’t sign. The player you referred a few years ago didn’t sign, and there was no issue. Players aren’t required to sign NLIs, so don’t unless you’re sure. That’s my take. As far as I know, schools aren’t required to offer an NLI either.

  2. Most of these kids will never play professional hockey no matter what their dreams are. The degree they receive and the money to pay for it is worth more. And they can play a sport they love as well. This young man needs to learn there are consequences to his decision when he violates a contract. That is a life experience that will help with his maturity in the long run.

    • Paul, tell most of these recruits that and we will see how many come to the school you recruit for.
      To answer your second question, its not the schooling..

      MIke if a player gets released from team at Christmas, he cant go anywhere until the following year. So yes the player punished, the team continues on.

      • But the player can go somewhere the following season without sitting out a transfer year if he’s cut. A player getting cut midseason is rare, and usually only the result of the player doing something stupid. My advice? Don’t do something stupid.

      • Yes you’re right. It is not something you tell a young man when you’re recruiting. But it is just a matter of Statistics. I listen to a Plevy interview and liked the fact that his goal is to play in the NHL while other player’s goal is to get a Division 1 scholarship. I prefer the former to the latter. I believe any Hockey East School has the tools, facilities, and the competition for a player to develop, with hard work and talent and no quit, into a good enough hockey player to be noticed by the NHL. But, I’m disappointed. Merrimack needs scorers. Plevy had the potential to provide that talent.

  3. My question is… what does Quinnipiac and Union do that is different than Merrimack to recruit and retain elite players. Murphy(yes he didn’t score much his first year) and now Plevy. I hope the AD takes a look at the reason for these defections and works on a solution. I’m disappointed for sure.

  4. the way I see it Mike is coach Dennehey is not well like by the players. He had a couple of ok years because of some real talent in Joe and Stephan and with that thought he walked on water. He hasn’t done anything since them and will continue to suck because his recruiting is horrible. Plevy is the only one who has put up any numbers in his junior career. If you look at all the other recruits that have come in the past 2 years and the ones coming in that have already agreed to come there numbers are pathetic. If the recruits are not a point a game player they won’t be anything at the ncaa div 1 level. Take a look at his recruits you will see what I’m saying.

    Kevin

    • I wouldn’t say Plevy was “the only one who put up any numbers,” but he certainly was one of them. Brett Seney, another forward coming in this season, averaged well over a PPG in the OJHL last season and Pat Kramer, Logan Drevitch, Tyler Drevitch and Matt Foget, who are in the pipeline for the future, are also considered top-end scorers.

      It’s not all about points, either. A player who is averaging a PPG on a poor junior team, without much talent to play with, should be weighted more than a player on a top-end team who is playing with elite talent on his line. Every situation is different, that’s all I’m saying.

      On the flip side, across the nation there have been plenty of players who averaged big numbers in juniors that failed to produce at the Division 1 level. A PPG player as a 16-year-old in juniors is different than a PPG player as a 20-year-old.

      I do agree with your point that it all comes down to recruiting, though. That’s the biggest factor between winning and losing for any college program. You need to recruit well. If you’re a poor team, it’s likely the result of at least a year or two of poor recruiting. However, looking at who they have committed for this year and in the future, a lot of scouts – guys who watch these players in juniors far more than I get to – all seem to agree that they’ve accumulated some talented scorers in the ’96s, ’97s and the ’98 they have committed.

  5. mike, some good reading, interesting stuff..plevy loss will sting some for sure, talented kid, who the team really could use. things like this happen, kudos for staff for recruiting recognizing the talent. I don’t blame plevy, some kids have change heart for whatever reason, hurts the team, but Milano just walked away from BC, leaving them shorthanded too..
    team needs skill, creativity, and speed..staff knows this have addressed some of it with kids like seney, foget, drevitch, Kramer..they still need to recruit grit to like babcock, kids who will play other type roles(bly)..need big strong kids like we have to many now, and smaller skilled quick players to..Merrimack now is grind type team,that needs to change a bit and will with more skill..
    bates, situation myers, Toomey a concern, we could use those older skill guys this year, missed bates speed, hockey sense last year, and wish all those kids the best..sometimes kids get in the doghouse for whatever reason, I saw it happen a lot when I played so I get it, not always fun sitting out games, when you think you should be playing, coaches make tough decisions, they go with the lineup that they think gives them best chance to win, tough thing to tell a kid who works his ass off hes not dressing, hardest part coaching for sure.. dennehy seems like fair guy, he rewards hard work , smart play with ice time..
    this year team looks young 10 frosh I think, team pretty solid on defense, goaltending should be good too..scoring/creativity, where they will struggle again,some kids may develop into threats, some may not, and become role players, shot blockers, defensive players who play smart, and are tough to play against..should be fun season, a lot new faces, wish the kids that graduated, or left best luck…thanks again mike for all the info!! great stuff

  6. Although I joked about Merrimack not making the cut for NBC national TV games – you’re right on, Mike. He signed that NLI. It’s not a joke.

    I can’t see or envision any reputable school – including Merrimack – or any major team – trying to get a school to surrender an NLI that it holds from a player. Perhaps Plevy didn’t like campus life? Homesick for the west? Who knows?

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Austin Plevy leaves Merrimack - Sports News Time
  2. Austin Plevy leaves Merrimack - Knee Pain
  3. Austin Plevy leaves Merrimack | Sports Discovery
  4. Dennehy Statement on Plevy, NLI - The Mack Report

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