Friday, December 16, 2011

Mike Vecchione's Decommitment from UNH: Part I

The U.S. Hockey Report was the first to report that 18-year-old Mike Vecchione of the Tri-City Storm had withdrawn his commitment to play for the University of New Hampshire. In a subsequent article in The Daily Item of Lynn, MA, Vecchione explained why he decommitted from UNH:
"We agreed to do a year in junior hockey. Then they told me they want me to do another year out here (in Nebraska). That's not what I agreed to. One of the problems is they overcommitted. They wanted to push me back. I'm ready to play college hockey right now. UNH is a great school with a great program; they just overcommitted."
Mike Vecchione was arguably the best high school hockey player in Massachusetts over the last two seasons. This season, he has taken his game to the next level, playing for the Tri-City Storm in the United States Hockey League, the top junior hockey league in the US. Although Vecchione was not drafted by an NHL team in the Entry Draft last summer, he still has the potential to become an elite college hockey player.

Avid UNH Hockey fans are understandably concerned over the loss of a top prospect who had selected UNH over other top college programs. The concern is amplified by the backdrop of other talented young players first committing to play at UNH, then not enrolling for various reasons. In recent years, two other gifted players have decommitted from UNH. In March, 2009, Ryan Bourque - son of NHL Hall of Famer Ray Bourque - decided to renege on his commitment to UNH in order to play Major Junior hockey in Quebec. A few months later, Bourque was drafted by the New York Rangers in the 3rd round of the NHL Entry Draft. In September, 2010, Joey Laleggia, a top Canadian junior player, decommitted from UNH and ended up playing for the University of Denver this season.

In two other cases, a top prospect who had committed to UNH was not allowed to enroll because they did not meet academic standards. In the summer of 2009, Matt White, a top prospect from California, did not meet the requirements of the NCAA Clearinghouse which establishes minimum standards for student/athletes. White had planned on playing for UNH in the 2009-10 season but withdrew his commitment. Instead, he played another season in the USHL, won the Player of the Year award, and is now playing for the University of Nebraska-Omaha. In August, 2009, Cam Reid was about to make the cross-country journey to sign up for UNH classes when he was informed more than one of his high school classes did not meet UNH's standards. Earlier that summer, Reid had been drafted by the Nashville Predators. He ended up playing one more season of junior hockey and now plays for St. Cloud State University.

Now, Mike Vecchione has become the fifth talented young player in 2 and 1/2 years to not reach the goal of playing hockey for the UNH Wildcats. Although Vecchione has chosen to go another route, there are many indications that his commitment to UNH was sincere.

Chronology of Mike Vecchione's Commitment to UNH
In late March, 2010, Vecchione first gave his verbal commitment to play hockey at UNH. At the time, Vecchione had just turned 17 and was a junior at Malden Catholic (MC) High School. He had helped lead Malden Catholic to the semi-finals of the Massachusetts Super 8 Hockey Tournament and had been named the Player of the Year for Massachusetts.

Former UNH Associate Head Coach David Lassonde reportedly scouted Vecchione at many games and Head Coach Dick Umile made Vecchione the offer after also seeing him play. When Vecchione made his verbal commitment to UNH, he said:
“This was the best fit for me. The campus is unbelievable, and coach [Dick Umile] welcomed me, and he was very nice. I also like their big ice surface, which is perfect for my speed.”
According to MC Head Coach Chris Serino - a former assistant coach at UNH and head coach at Merrimack College - Vecchione was also recruited by Harvard, Boston College, Providence and UMass-Amherst. At the time Vecchione made his verbal commitment to UNH, he was described as an honors student.

In November, 2010, Vecchione made another public gesture reflecting his level of commitment to UNH. According to a brief article in a local newspaper which covers towns north of Boston, Malden Catholic held an event on "National Signing Day" for four of its student athletes. On this day each year, seniors in high schools all over the country sign a National Letter of Intent ("NLI"; also called "LOI" for "Letter of Intent") to play an NCAA sport. The NLI is a binding agreement in which the student agrees to attend the college for one academic year in exchange for athletic financial aid from the college for that academic year.

Typically, the student who signs the NLI is making a commitment to enroll in the college at the beginning of the next academic year. Once an NLI is signed by the student, his/her parent or guardian, and the college, no other NCAA institution may recruit the student for as long as the NLI is in effect. Although Mike Vechionne was one of the four MC students at the event, his presence was apparently symbolic. A spokesperson for UNH has confirmed that Mike Vecchione did not sign a National Letter of Intent to attend the university.

Soon after the student-athlete event at Malden Catholic, Vecchione announced a plan to play junior hockey in the 2011-12 season. In a December, 2010 article in the New England Hockey Journal, Vecchione said:
“I felt UNH would be the best fit for me, but I don’t see myself going up there next year. Coach Umile was straightforward with me. He told me he’d like to see me get bigger, stronger and faster, and asked me if I’d be willing to do an extra year in the USHL.”
Vecchione finished out the 2010-2011 season with Malden Catholic, leading them to the school's first Super 8 Massachusetts High School Championship. In an interview following Malden Catholic's dramatic overtime victory, Vecchione said:
"After we won the state title, I got a call from Dick Umile (the UNH head coach) and his assistant David Lassonde congratulating me. They will have a say in where I’ll be playing next year, but Chris (Serino) is my backbone, my communicator and architect, who will help set everything up for me. I’ll be going away to play juniors for a year, before coming home to UNH.”
At the time, two junior teams were under consideration: Tri-City Storm (USHL), who had drafted Vecchione, and the Westside Warriors (British Columbia Hockey League).

This past August and September, 2011, Mike Vecchione tried out for and made the 23-player Active Roster of the Tri-City Storm. Over the first 17 games of his first season in the USHL, he had scored 4 goals and 5 assists. In a game on November 26th against the Lincoln Stars, Vecchione sustained an upper body injury and has missed 7 games. There is no official word on when he will return to the Tri-City Storms' lineup.

What Were the Terms of Vecchione's Verbal Commitment to UNH?
By design and customary practice, details about the recruiting and commitment process are difficult to come by. Up until a student-athlete signs a National Letter of Intent, the college is forbidden by NCAA rules to comment on the recruit other than to confirm that the prospect is being recruited. Since Mike Vecchione did not sign an NLI to play hockey at UNH, we will never hear the perspective of Coach Dick Umile and his staff about the recruiting of Vecchione. To date, all we have to go by are the public statements of Vecchione. It seems clear that Vecchione believed he had an agreement with UNH to play the 2011-12 season in the USHL and enroll at UNH in the fall of 2012.

The UNH coaching staff were not required to develop or sign any written agreement during the 20-month period they were recruiting Mike Vecchione. Obviously, there were ongoing discussions between Vecchione and one or more UNH coaches. For example, the decision to leave his hometown of Saugus, MA and travel to Kearney, Nebraska to play in the USHL was made in consultation with UNH. But did any of the UNH coaches ever tell Vecchione that a slot on the 2012-13 roster was guaranteed in exchange for his playing one season in the USHL? We will never know the unequivocal answer to that question because Coach Umile, former Associate Coach Lassonde, and Associate Coach Scott Borek are not allowed to comment. It's possible that either the coach of the Tri-City Storm and/or Coach Serino of Malden Catholic are familiar with the negotiations but neither has commented on the situation.

Events Preceding Vecchione's Decommitment
According to a report on ESPNBoston, Mike Vecchione's informed UNH of his decision to decommit on or around December 1st. Since the USHL season began in October, the Tri-City Storm and Vecchione have faced a number of challenges. The Storm has the second worst record in the USHL and won only 3 games in November. The Storm's owner fired the Head Coach/General Manager on December 7th. On November 26th, Vecchione suffered an upper body injury serious enough to keep him out of the lineup. In the ESPN article, Vecchione described his situation in Tri-City as "things are good".

One unconfirmed possibility is that the early signing period for National Letters of Intent had an impact on the process. For hockey, prospects and universities have an opportunity to sign NLI's from the second to third Wednesdays in November. Perhaps Vecchione was looking for UNH to offer him an NLI in early November and that's when UNH informed him of their request to have him play another year in juniors.

Conclusion for Part I
Most UNH hockey fans are familiar with the successful record of Coach Umile and his coaches. Since the 1991-92 season, UNH has earned a selection to the NCAA Championship Tournament in 17 out of the 20 seasons. Similarly, the UNH coaching staff have recruited and developed numerous players who excelled at the college level. Under Coach Umile's leadership, there have been 8 players to win the Hockey East Player of the Year Award and 23 players who have been named as All-Americans.

It almost goes without saying that Coach Umile and his staff have practiced a successful approach to recruiting and teaching young hockey prospects. Mike Vecchione is a high-profile recruit from a Northern suburb of Boston, near the town where Coach Umile grew up and was a star high school athlete. Vecchione's advisor is a former UNH assistant coach and friend of Coach Umile It's hard to imagine that UNH's decision to ask Vecchione to play an extra year of junior hockey and risk losing his commitment was made lightly.

Part II will explore the process involved when a young hockey player makes a verbal commitment to a college and the phenomenon of "decommitment".


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