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Throughout high school, elite student athletes work their absolute hardest in hopes of catching the eye of a collegiate scout. These scouts, the universities involved and NCAA athletics in general, wield a very powerful agent when trying to attract student athletes, the scholarship.
Recently, Ohio University has enjoyed great success in multiple major sports, and has been earning commitments from more and more coveted recruits over the course of the past year and what looks to continue into the future as well.
But how does the Ohio University club hockey team go about attracting the best players it can to be one of the most competitive teams in the ACHA year after year?
By its very nature, collegiate hockey calls for a different, and at times trickier, approach than other sports, because a majority of the best players go to play juniors before attending college.
Only one of 10 freshmen currently listed on the Ohio hockey team’s roster is 18 years old and fresh out of high school. A total of 21 out of the 23 skaters on their roster played in a junior league of some sort before coming to play in Athens. Some came from the NAHL, the OJHL, the AJHL, the EJHL, and several other leagues, and every one of them was actively recruited by the Bobcats’ coaching staff.
Throughout the year, these junior leagues will have showcase tournaments that are attended by scouts of some minor pro leagues, the NCAA and the ACHA. These showcases are where Head Coach Dan Morris and the rest of his staff find the bulk of the players Ohio puts on the ice today.
“When we go to these showcases, we look for kids that slip through the cracks,” said Coach Morris. “Hockey players know what they want and where they would shake out. The top three guys on a team will be talking to NCAA schools or will already be committed. Then it’s a tough situation to be in when you’re a 20, 21-year-old when none of those schools are talking to you. What’s neat is, when we talk to those guys, they’re excited about it. When it comes down to it, players know about the ACHA, and you want one of the top teams from the league talking to you.”
Coach Morris knows he can use his program’s reputation to his advantage, and players looking for somewhere to play hockey in college certainly know about Ohio University. When Penn State, one of the Bobcats’ long-time rivals in hockey, moved up to play in NCAA
Division-I this season, Ohio took over as the most successful program in the ACHA; no school has more national championships than Ohio.
This tradition of success helps lure players to Athens, especially some who go on to become top players in the ACHA.
Senior and team captain Tyler Pilmore, a product of the NAHL, leads the Bobcats in points and is among the leading scorers in the ACHA. The NAHL is a junior league that has produced close to 100 NHL players, including two first overall picks in the NHL Entry Draft and household names like Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Ryan Miller, and Jimmy Howard.
Pilmore is a perfect example of an exceptional player who the Ohio hockey staff took a gamble on at the risk of possibly losing him to an NCAA program.
Pilmore still had a year of junior eligibility remaining when he was approached by Ohio coaches about playing for them. Schools at any level, whether it be varsity or club, may have waited that extra year to see what Pilmore could do before reaching out to him, but Morris’ program’s reputation proved to be enough to make the Ohio native a Bobcat.
Now Pilmore wears the Green and White every weekend tormenting defenses across the ACHA.
Sometimes though, Morris and his staff are not quite as lucky.
“There were some guys we had, and then there will be a summer showcase and that guy will play really well, and now suddenly he’s a Division-I prospect,” said Morris. As coaches try to woo players to help their teams and programs, there becomes a pecking order in terms of who-gets-who.
NCAA Division-I schools usually have their pick of the litter and then only have to compete against other D-I programs. After that, things get complicated according to Coach Morris.
“The way we look at it, if you are not offered a Division-I scholarship, we’re in the hunt for you,” said Morris. “Now, Division-III schools, they want to say, ‘Wait a minute, we want our pick, and then you guys (ACHA teams) can have our leftovers’. We don’t see it that way.”
Often these NCAA Division-III schools and teams atop the ACHA will engage in “recruitment wars” in order to land the player that they want. Historically, players have transferred between the two leagues on many occasions in the middle of their collegiate hockey careers.
Whether they are battling with other schools in order to score the player they want, or motivating their players to battle on the ice to score goals, the Ohio University hockey team’s coaching staff has their work cut out for them all year long.
While the hockey team plays its last series this weekend in Kent State before a long layoff for winter break, multiple junior leagues will be having showcases over the next few weeks, and you can be sure Coach Morris and his assistants will have their eye on these junior players in hope of recruiting the hockey program’s next gem.