Freshman eligibility: Seismic change comes to NCAA hockey

Denver's Tom Peluso was among the early wave of freshmen to make an immediate impact when they became eligible in the early 1970s. The decision to allow freshman eligibility continues to have a profound impact on NCAA hockey.

Revolution had reached even the austere NCAA ruling ranks in the early months of 1969, where an inexorable momentum built in favor of freshman eligibility. Emancipation was still somewhat distant for freshman football and basketball players — it wasn’t ratified until the 1972 NCAA Convention — but freshman eligibility in hockey wasn’t restricted by the NCAA. It was instead left to the prerogative of the conferences and institutions, sparking philosophical rifts that smoldered across decades of college hockey.

Through the 1950s and 60s, the west was not freshman-friendly, with first-year players ineligible for varsity play in the WCHA. Finally, in 1969, knowing well the fertile recruiting potential of western Canada and greater Toronto, the conference’s coaches could resist no longer, voting freshman eligible for the 1969-70 season. The decision wasn’t without often colorful disagreement.

Connected inextricably to the freshman eligibility debate was the role of Canadian players in American college hockey and the quasi-professional junior hockey ranks from which they often arrived. Denver’s title game dispatching of Cornell in 1969 amplified the issue, with former Minnesota head coach John Mariucci, then serving a dual role as Minnesota North Stars scout and Godfather of Minnesota hockey, remarking that the only Americans on the ice were the two referees. There were, in fact, two American players on the ice as well, but his point was nonetheless resonant. Soon the NCAA received recommendations from a specially appointed hockey committee on ways to increase opportunities for American-born players. Among the recommendations was a proposal to make freshman ineligible for varsity competition. It was voted down three months later after lively debate.

In the east, things were even more contentious. The ECAC was still years from a consensus, tense as it would be, with the Ivy League schools holding a hard line against freshmen while their non-Ivy conference rivals did not. The 1969-70 season featured spirited debate on the issue, with Boston College floating a proposal to make freshman ineligible for the NCAA hockey championship. The proposal was later voted down, but it was still indicative of the division among college hockey’s national cognoscenti.

It would be six long years before Ivy League schools would soften their stance, approving freshman eligibility on a three-year trial basis with the hope of creating more competitive balance throughout the conference in late 1975. Schools like Brown, Penn, Princeton, Dartmouth and Yale lauded the decision. “It’s been a godsend for us, a real blessing,” said Penn head coach Bob Crocker in an interview with William Stedman from The Harvard Crimson. “Lots of kids are not mature enough for an Ivy education, (but) they want to play hockey four years.” With the rule change, now they could do both, and Ivy schools would be more attractive to top hockey prospects. But not everyone was in agreement. Harvard, which had won the two most recent league championships, voted against freshman eligibility, as did Yale. This eastern fissure in philosophy was never fully spanned and eventually widened by the launch of Hockey East in 1984.

For the players and coaches, freshman eligibility meant new opportunities and new challenges. It was a boon for some and a bane for others. For the game itself, it was a seismic paradigm shift still felt today.

June 1970

Winter’s lingering grip on the Iron Range had finally loosened and Terry Shercliffe was prospecting Northern Minnesota with an open window. The radio warbled with a shrill harmonica riff. Yes, the times were indeed a-changin’, and no one knew that like he did, not after watching Murray Keogan.

A precocious freshman from Shercliffe’s home province, Saskatchewan, Keogan would have been ineligible had he arrived at the University of Minnesota Duluth one year earlier. Of course, had he not been eligible, he would not have arrived at all.

Shercliffe helped recruit Keogan to Duluth and watched him amass 40 points in 29 games to lead all Bulldog scorers and claim the first WCHA Freshman of the Year award. He also became the first and only Bulldog freshman to be named All-America. Along with Keogan came a herd of outstanding freshmen including Walt Ledingham, Larry Wright and Cam Fryer, among others, in what stands as perhaps the greatest recruiting class in Bulldog history (the troika of Keogan, Ledingham and Fryer still rank among the university’s all-time points-per-game leaders).

Murray Keogan, from the University of Minnesota Duluth, was the WCHA's first Freshman of the Year.

“Terry did most of the recruiting, but Bill Selman was there for the final push and they definitely emphasized that freshmen would be eligible,” said Keogan. “None of us would have came if we didn’t expect to play.”

And play they did.

That freshmen could pay such immediate dividends was unexpected, but no one in the coaching establishment believed it to be impossible either.

At Wisconsin, “Badger” Bob Johnson mused that he had “no idea how the freshman rule will affect us or the other teams,” but he was certain that no team would be caught short of talent. Keogan and his young Bulldog teammates were a prime example as Minnesota Duluth more than doubled its win total from the prior season. That success spurred Shercliffe into the rural farm country north of Nashwauk, Minn., in search of the next one.

Leaning west of the Mesabi’s richest ore deposits, Nashwauk was far from its halcyon 1930s, having shed more than half of its former population. It boomed first with timber and later with ore. It teemed throughout with taverns. The supply of trees and rocks was finite, but the bars proved inexhaustible. Liquor helped soften the busts. It also carried the flow of conversation, providing a meaningful social conduit for the initiated, some intentionally, some accidentally.

Shercliffe turned north on Highway 65, then west on a small county road. It was an important distinction. Kids raised east of Highway 65 attended nearby Nashwauk High School. Those raised west of the highway were shipped to Greenway High School, some 20 miles to the southwest. Greenway had a hockey program. Nashwauk did not.

Cloverdale was west of the highway. Shercliffe meandered impatiently toward an 80-acre farm there.

—–

Three hundred miles to the southeast, a loud building stood silent. Dane County Coliseum was home to the Wisconsin Badgers, but they were gone for the summer. As a second-year coach of Wisconsin’s junior varsity team, Jeff Sauer was still there. He sat inside, scouring a list of prospects. He knew freshman were increasingly capable, and better still, they were plentiful, at least compared to the number of teams that were actively recruiting them in 1970.

As the names blurred, Sauer drifted to his not-too-distant days as a freshman at Colorado College, before freshmen were eligible. Despite receiving a hockey scholarship, he watched the varsity games with the pep band, making his contribution with a trombone rather than the stick he used all week in practice.

The varsity Tigers lost every game they played. One season later, with Sauer now a full-fledged Tiger, his team rebounded to a 12-11-0 finish and a win over arch-rival Denver — the Tigers’ first in 22 tries against the Pioneers. Colorado College seniors finished as winners. Sauer helped send them out on a high note.

Back in the moment, Sauer focused on his list. Times had changed. Clearly there were Canadian 18-year-olds with immediate-impact potential. He was certain that there were Americans, too. He just had to find them. And now he didn’t have to worry about them drinking themselves out of hockey as freshmen because they couldn’t play games on Friday and Saturday nights.

—–

Further to the east, Harvard goaltender Joe Bertagna was eating a cheeseburger at Elsie’s in Harvard Square. Tucked under the colonial brick of Manter Hall School, the awning-covered sandwich shop held landmark status among Ivy Leaguers, but it was an out-of-the-way retreat for Bertagna. “Rather than celebrate with the crowd, I go to Elsie’s,” he told The Harvard Crimson, “Happiness is a cheeseburg club after a victory.”

Harvard's Joe Bertagna enjoyed a diverse college experience as a freshman, but it didn't include playing in varsity games.

A self-proclaimed loner with an intellectual curiosity not commonly associated with athletes, Bertagna savored the social scene as a freshman. It was a wild time in Cambridge. He was once roused from a Bruins-Flyers game on TV-38 with a decree to defend Shannon Hall, home to Harvard’s ROTC program, from a fiery demise threatened by the Students for a Democratic Society. He later told The Crimson that he and his teammates’ valiant siege defense was inspired more by “terminal boredom” than political ideology, but it still fulfilled the unique college experience quota for the evening.

His varied freshman experiences did not, however, include playing a varsity hockey game. He had arrived too soon in that regard, at least in the Ivy League, which bucked the growing embrace of varsity participation for freshmen.

—–

Back in Minnesota, Tom Peluso had long been on college coaches’ radar, even if his family farm in Cloverdale was comparatively off the grid. His Greenway Raiders were perennial state tournament qualifiers, with Peluso now leading the way like his former linemate Mike Antonovich did before him. Antonovich had moved on to great freshman success at the University of Minnesota under Glen Sonmor, joining forces with goaltender Murray McLachlan, a Canadian sophomore who was ineligible as a freshman, to win the WCHA’s MacNaughton Cup in 1970.

Peluso’s farm, however remote, was not so far remote that Sonmor and his assistant coach, Herb Brooks, couldn’t find it on signing day. Rube Bjorkman from the University of North Dakota was there too. As Shercliffe pulled into the driveway, he realized it wouldn’t be a private visit. Undeterred, he went with the others, all seeking the talented winger from Greenway, he of the sturdy 6-foot frame and offensive instincts well beyond his 18 years.

Peluso’s parents welcomed the coaches with a fresh pot of coffee, and after the requisite Minnesota small talk – yes, it was nice to finally have warm weather — discussions moved to the living room where Brooks accidentally spilled his coffee. It was Minnesota’s only misstep of the day. Bjorkman and Shercliffe also made strong cases. “I remember just going about my business,” said Peluso. “They all knew why they were there.”

When the coaches adjourned to the driveway, Peluso watched through the window while his dad closed the conversation. They were beyond earshot when the phone rang. Peluso answered the call. It was Murray Armstrong.

The helmsman of Denver’s college hockey dynasty didn’t make the trip to Nashwauk on signing day, but his assistant coach, Harry Ottenbreit, had already been there months before. He couldn’t find the Peluso farm, but inside one of Nashwauk’s taverns he did some investigative work. Word travels fast in a small town and he was soon chatting with Peluso’s dad and uncle. “They evidently carried on a helluva conversation because he didn’t get to the house until late – so that was the first visit from Denver,” recalled Peluso.

Only Michigan had more national championships to its credit than Denver, and the Pioneers were laden with Canadians. To be sought by Denver was high praise for a high school prospect from Minnesota.

Denver soon arranged a visit during which Armstrong explained his vision for the young winger. “Coach Armstrong was quite a guy,” said Peluso. “He told me who my center would be — a right-hand shooter from Thunder Bay, Vic Venasky — and he didn’t require me to sign a letter of intent. He didn’t believe in them. There was no pressure to sign anything. He said that if the University of Denver and his handshake wasn’t enough and I wanted to leave on Sept. 1, that was fine because it would probably be better for them and me. That was the kind of class act he was.”

His parents remained neutral, encouraging Peluso to make his own decision. He was 18 now, old enough to choose. Twelve Division I schools had hosted him for visits, with Denver being the last. “Wherever I wanted to go, I knew my dad would either find it on the radio or find a way to get there,” said Peluso, who ultimately decided between Minnesota and Denver. By late summer, his bags were packed for the Rocky Mountains, his mind set on becoming part of the Denver dynasty. One year later, he was further evidence that freshmen could shine; his 23 goals and 51 points serving notice.

Aftermath

When freshman fever took hold, coaches surged into a gold rush for impact youngsters that could immediately improve their teams’ fortunes and complement their returning players. As the most dynamic of these prospects secured varsity roster spots, the college game’s overall talent level increased. With more opportunity and talent came a new reality. College hockey was no longer merely a destination league. It was now a true development league.

At the same time, professional hockey opportunities were increasing exponentially. The National Hockey League expansion in 1967 doubled the number of available jobs and minor league squads sprang forth in far-flung American locales like Salt Lake, San Diego and Phoenix. Soon the World Hockey Association would emerge, spawning even more demand for talent — and potential for that talent to earn a paycheck. Prospects were in shorter supply than ever before, except in the American college ranks, where pressure mounted on underclassmen to accelerate their dreams, earn a paycheck and fill the professional game’s talent vacuum. Young players like Peluso were prime professional targets. He played one more season at Denver, earning First Team All-America honors before signing with Chicago and playing for Dallas of the Central Hockey League. Keogan preceded him, leaving Minnesota Duluth after two seasons and joining the CHL’s Kansas City club. The trickle became a trend. Today it’s a flood. Inadvertent as the result may be, we can see now that it began in the revolution of 1969.

Postscript

Terry Shercliffe enrolled at the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1962 and graduated in 1965. He was a three-year hockey letterwinner. In the fall of 1967, he returned to UMD as physical education teacher and assistant hockey coach. He was an assistant coach from 1967-71 and head coach from 1971-75. He then moved to Moorhead, Minn., taking a teaching job in 1976 and leaving an indelible mark as a long-time assistant coach at Moorhead High School. He is currently an assistant coach with the USHL’s Fargo Force.

Murray Keogan parlayed his time at Minnesota Duluth into a successful minor pro career which he completed in tandem with finishing his business administration degree. He was inducted into the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2001 and currently operates an insurance agency in Duluth, Minn.

“It was very important to allow freshmen to play,” he said. “And maybe even more so now, because they come from playing 70 or 80 games in junior hockey. If they had to sit a whole year, they’d go backwards.”

Tom Peluso helped Dallas win the CHL’s Adams Cup in 1973, highlighting a four-year minor pro career that was shortened by injuries. He eventually returned to the Iron Range and is currently a manager at Blandin Paper Company in Grand Rapids, Minn. He is the uncle of one former NHL player and the cousin of another.

“If you didn’t have freshman eligibility today, you wouldn’t bring in anybody,” said Peluso, who also praises the structure it provides for young student-athletes. “It was really tough for players to sit out a year, particularly at schools like Denver and Colorado College where there weren’t enough walk-ons to have a junior varsity team. Those four or five freshman would skate in practices during the week, then be on their own on the weekends. They’d have a whole year without competitive hockey. When I got to Denver, I heard a lot of stories about great freshmen who had to sit out their first year. For some of them, it ruined their hockey careers because they partied themselves out of the game.”

Jeff Sauer coached at Colorado College and Wisconsin, winning two national championships with the Badgers in 1983 and 1990. He also coached U.S. National Teams at various levels. Currently a special adviser to the WCHA, he recently received the NHL’s Lester Patrick Award for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.

Joe Bertagna went from stopping pucks at Harvard to doing it in the professional ranks for the Milwaukee Admirals and S.G. Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy. He later served as a coach at Harvard and then with Boston Bruins before shifting into administration and eventually becoming commissioner of Hockey East, a post he has held since 1997.

“I think the biggest effect of making freshmen eligible was more social than athletic,” said Bertagna. “Doing away with freshman teams eliminated a great dynamic. I have friends I made from freshman hockey who never played again. It was a special year of getting to know 20 classmates well and also break into the better level of play. Today, the frosh are often 20 or 21 years old and much more mature athletically. They are separate from the rest of the student body in so many ways. We have professionalized the experience, I’m afraid.”

– Jayson Hron

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One thought on “Freshman eligibility: Seismic change comes to NCAA hockey

  1. Jayson,

    Another well written and researched story that brings the past to the present. I enjoy your blog and look forward to your continued stories.

    Butch Williams

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