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A bleak December for USA Hockey: Merrill and Coyle

December 16, 2011

Coyle and teammates celebrate in this summer’s evaluation camp.

With the start of the World Juniors in Alberta just two weeks away, USA Hockey, and college hockey more generally, have hit turmoil. When the situation seemed dire this summer, as top prospects ditched their NCAA commitments for the OHL, a more depressing, more nuanced angle to the college versus major junior route has emerged.

Heck, I’ll cheer for Team USA louder than anyone. I am an ardent supporter of college hockey, having been raised on it in its American epicenter: New England. But what’s happened with USA Hockey’s up-and-comers, and members of their U20 team for the upcoming 2012 tournament, is becoming downright deplorable and embarrassing. Jon Merrill and Charlie Coyle have made headlines in the last month for one reason or another–none of them good. Then there is Corey Trivino, Canadian and overage, but still a former member of BU hockey who is facing assault and attempted rape charges.

But let’s focus on Merrill and Coyle. Coyle is now said to be departing for the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. He won’t suit up until after the WJC, of course. But his reason for leaving BU is apparently “academic issues.” Then you have Jon Merrill, a member of the Wolverines at UMich, who is still sidelined and has yet to play a game this season for violating team rules. Both players are Alberta-bound for Team USA. Neither will claim that their issues are going to get in the way of representing their country, nor arguably should they. USA Hockey works closely with the colleges that supply their players, and many have been through the rigors of the national development program. But it is really troubling to see the cases of Merrill and Coyle unfold, especially as an American hockey fan.

For one, I really admire the tough stance BU and the University of Michigan have taken on their players. Being a student-athlete entails adhering to both components of the term. Cracking the whip is perfectly acceptable. Major junior teams have ways of suspending players for bad behavior or poor academic performance, but I have a feeling they are nowhere near as strict as NCAA constituent schools are.

That said, is this who we want representing the next wave of American hockey right now? I want to give both players a mulligan for whatever it is they did. After all, they are 19. Most everyone has acted poorly, without judgment at the age of 19. College can be difficult, juggling classes, personal issues, errands plus hockey–that’s hard. But I feel more than a bit embarrassed that the players representing my country (and for Coyle, my region of Massachusetts where I grew up–the South Shore) are, in essence, student-athletes who aren’t studying and are violating team rules. They are not acting, well, classy, for lack of a better term. There is something really wrong with this picture when what should be two standout players for Team USA have exercised poor judgment and had spotty records this past year. I don’t expect Team USA to be a crew of angels, but I think some decency is needed.

Surely, USA Hockey will be challenged to explain the purpose of these players on the team, and what they bring. Whether they’ll be a distraction or have a negative impact, I don’t know. I doubt that. But it doesn’t reflect well on USA Hockey right now.

On a more global level, it raises questions about the viability of the college hockey model. Indeed, USA Hockey and college hockey have been as intertwined as anything in the propagation of hockey in America. Is playing through a whole four years feasible, desirable? Why do so many players depart, stating they wanted to “focus more on hockey?” Is the core message of a 50/50 college/hockey split being lost somewhere along the way? Are the players supported properly? Again, we don’t know. And it will likely vary from school to school. But there are now a lot of questions.

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