ICYMI: OW 2 UM
That might have been how some of 13-year-old Oliver Wahlstrom’s friends tweeted the news that the seventh-grader from Yarmouth, Maine, had made a verbal commitment to the University of Maine.
In case you missed it, the earliest Wahlstrom would enroll at Maine is the fall of 2019.
Born June 13, 2000, he is the first player from that birth year to commit, and he is the youngest player ever to commit to a Division 1 college. He is too young to be contacted by a college coach, by NCAA rules. But those rules allow any student and his parents to contact a coach and visit a school at their own expense.
If the name sounds familiar, Wahlstrom was the 9-year-old a few years back who scored the goal on “Mini One-on-One” during intermission of a Boston Bruins telecast that had everyone talking. On a penalty shot in the competition, he skated into the slot. There, the right shot brought his stick down almost parallel to ice level to scoop the puck on his blade. Almost in one motion from scooping the puck, he started into a 360-degree turn and whipped a backhander lacrosse-style into the left upper corner.
The YouTube video had 4,374,239 views in late January.
At the time, Wahlstrom was playing for the Portland Junior Pirates. He has also played for the New England Junior Falcons, Islanders Hockey Club, Boston Junior Bruins, Boston Junior Whalers and with a team from Sweden, the native country of his father, Joakim, who played two seasons at Maine.
Wahlstrom is currently a 5-foot-9, 155-pound left wing on the top line of the varsity at North Yarmouth Academy.
“Oliver is a very special player who has done well for us this year despite facing much older competition,” NYA coach Eric Graham said in his school’s press release. “His skating ability and ice awareness have allowed him to not only compete at the prep level, but get noticeably better in every game he’s played. His skill set is exceptional, and his approach to the game is mature well beyond his years. As serious as he is about hockey, he has a pure love of the sport which becomes clear whenever he steps on the ice. He loves scoring goals, and he loves having the puck on his stick.”
Clearly, Wahlstrom has quite a bit of ability. Congratulations are in order.
Not to criticize him or his family, but speaking to the process, picking a college at 13?
Granted, like deciding among various junior and school paths of development, every person is an individual and each case is different. But there are 18-year-olds who have a hard time with making a college choice. A verbal commitment is non-binding; either party can break it. Players cannot sign a binding National Letter of Intent until their senior season.
“You’re not married until you’re married,” said a college hockey insider, who did not want to be named because his intention was not to be critical of Wahlstrom or Maine and did not want it misconstrued. “The younger it goes, you’re dating. A lot of seventh-graders think the girl they’re dating is going to be their wife.”
The trend to a younger and younger college commitment has been ongoing because of the unique nature of hockey.
Outside of turning pro where it’s applicable, for nearly any other high school student-athlete, the next step is going to college. Hockey has competition from both Canadian major junior hockey and various other North American junior hockey.
While the other North American junior hockey might delay entry into college until a student is old as 21 — a phenomenon unlike other sports — the road still runs toward college. However, Canadian major junior makes one ineligible for NCAA college hockey because of the stipends that are paid. The Western Hockey League drafts players at 15 years old, and the Ontario and Quebec leagues draft at 16. In most cases, whether contact is made in the draft year or earlier, it has been ahead of when NCAA coaches were allowed to make contact, which was June 15 of the player’s sophomore year.
In January, the NCAA moved that date up to Jan. 1 of the sophomore year for hockey so that players may be better informed of their options prior to major junior drafts. The contacts are limited to phone calls and electronic communication, but it is more than was previously allowed.
But for many Americans, major junior is never really a serious option because of the culture growing up with college hockey and the emphasis placed on continuing one’s education at that level.
So, outside of the major junior angle, it comes back to why so young to make the verbal commitment?
From both the college and the player, there is a competitive nature to recruiting. Colleges are trying to lock up the best players to win. Players try to land at what they perceive to be the best school possible and understand an opportunity that’s here today, might not be there tomorrow.
At the same time, there is a balancing act. Every college coach this writer has ever spoken to about recruiting wants to do what is right both for the player and his family and for the sport. Players need to think about more than hockey in making a decision and also weigh their options, as opposed to jumping immediately on the first offer.
A real early commitment maybe gives the player some satisfaction and the school an early leg up. But predicting what a player will be like two to four years out is extremely difficult for NHL organizations drafting 18-year-olds. Predicting what a 13- or 14-year-old will do in four or five years for a college staff has to be that much harder. There’s as much chance that young phenom will fizzle out to some degree as there is the progression to stardom continues.
When that fizzle happens, it’s not an easy break-up. The school might not want to admit it was wrong. It doesn’t want to get a bad reputation. But it also doesn’t want to be bogged down by unproductive scholarship money, which is precious to begin with. The player might not want to let go. If the player does let go, there could be some shine off the gem, a stigma about why School X didn’t want him as he tries to find a new place to go.
“What advantage is it to say, ‘I’m going here’ before you have to,” asked a longtime high school and college coach and administrator, who also did not want to be named out of a desire to not be perceived as critical of Maine. “The whole process needs to be looked at. I don’t think it’s good. I can’t imagine you’ll talk to anybody who would say this is fabulous.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of New England Hockey Journal.