University Maine men’s hockey coach Red Gendron, like all other college coaches, must sell his program to recruits through Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald file photo

College hockey coaches have had to adapt in recent months, with the start of the 2020-21 season being delayed and then games being rescheduled at a moment’s notice.

They’ve also needed to adjust how they recruit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In-person and campus visits have been paused for NCAA Division I sports until April 15, but coaches can reach out to recruits by phone, email and social media. At the Division III level, the New England Small Athletic Conference (NESCAC), the home of Bowdoin College and Colby College, has adapted similar measures.

Instead of coaches meeting face-to-face with recruits, coaches sell their programs through Zoom calls.

“You can share screens, it’s better than an audio phone call,” University of Maine men’s hockey coach Dennis “Red” Gendron said. “You can produce some images that players can see that represent your program. We have done a lot of work like that because it’s been necessary because of the situation we are in. The fact the playing field is level and no one is allowed to go out and recruit, it is what it is.”

Ansal “Gus” Holt, a goaltender for the Maine Nordiques Prep Academy 18U team, experienced the other side of those Zoom calls before committing to play at Army.

“The hardest part for me is I couldn’t interact with them in person because the rules they had, that was obviously difficult,” Holt told the Sun Journal in October. “Obviously, like Zoom and phone (calls), it made it a lot easier to communicate. I could see the schools and I had an extensive conversation with them. They showed me everything I needed without going there.”

While technology can help sell a program, there are players who benefit from the in-person recruiting experience.

“The other part is if you are going to make a decision on going to a university, you want to get a hands-on feel for the people, the campus, the footprint, obviously the coaches,” Lewiston native and Bowdoin College coach Jamie Dumont said. “You want all those things, it’s only normal for someone to make that decision. We have guys who are playing out west that want to come visit, but we can’t have them visit because our campus is closed.”

Gendron and the UMaine men are in a better position that most programs. He finished his recruiting for the 2021-22 season prior to the pandemic, and with eight seniors he’s not looking to add many freshmen next year.

“For us as a program, we don’t have much in terms of recruiting that has to get done,” Gendron said. “We will have a small (freshmen) class next year, and that’s basically full. We may add one more player, but it was a good year to be turned upside down in the way we conduct our business.”

Eliteprospects.com lists 15 recruits committed to Maine for the next two seasons, including Maine Nordiques forward Tyler Gaulin.

University of Southern Maine men’s hockey coach Ed Harding. Submitted photo

Meanwhile, in some New England-based Division III conferences — such as the New England Hockey Conference, home to the University of Southern Maine, and the Commonwealth Coast Conference, which includes the University of New England — currently coaches can travel to New Hampshire and Vermont without having to quarantine.

“One thing for me, I haven’t been traveling as much and I haven’t gotten up to Canada, obviously,” Southern Maine coach Ed Harding said. “That has affected it a little bit, but I have a few Canadian kids where I have been in communication a lot and they have submitted their application. These kids that are coming in (next) year) aren’t kids who I just started recruiting. A lot of these kids I have been recruiting for two or three years.”

SCOUTING THROUGH A COMPUTER

With limited travel, or none at all, coaches have been opening up their laptop or firing up their smart TV more often to catch the next generation of college hockey players.

“As recruiting goes, it’s all online: HockeyTV, InStat and a little bit of Live Barn,” Joe Dumais, an Auburn native who is the associate head coach at Division I Quinnipiac University. “You kind of watch those three things, you talk to coaches and players … you do a lot of Zoom calls. That’s kind of the new thing: you Zoom kids and their families, that’s how you meet them and that’s how they meet you.”

HockeyTV is a subscription service that allows fans, parents and college coaches to view any junior hockey game in the United States and in the 10 Canadian Junior “A” leagues. InStat allows junior coaches to cut video clips and upload them so that college coaches and NHL scouts can view specific players. LiveBarn, another subscription service, is installed in most rinks and is designed for parents to watch their kids’ games. Typically, it includes only one fixed camera that tracks movement.

Bowdoin men’s hockey coach Jamie Dumont, a Lewiston native, on the bench in a game against Middlebury in January 2018. Brian Beard – CIP

“That’s the beauty, they are trying to help kids get exposure. It’s been a blessing to have HockeyTV; not are all great broadcasts, but at least you can get a sense of what the player is and the caliber he’s playing at,” Dumont said.

The Quinnipiac coaching staff is getting its money’s worth from HockeyTV this season.

“If a kid emails us, we can hop on to see how he is before we respond to him,” Dumais said. “If we are recruiting a kid, we have seen him live a bunch, but our head coach (Rand Pecknold) can watch more. So, we use it a lot. We’ve used it a lot in the past, but that’s all we do (this year). We are watching every game, beginning to end, we are watching players shifts. (Recruiting) has changed dramatically. As for a percentage, maybe it was 10-20 percent of what we were doing as far as recruiting. Now it’s 100 percent.”

HockeyTV only hosts the games on its website. It’s up to the league and teams to furnish their equipment, so the viewing experience can be different from team to team and from league to league.

“I will tell you, there are far less problems. Those (team and leagues) have done a good job, the camera work has been good,” Harding said. “I only found myself a very few times, actually, having to turn it off because it wasn’t great to follow. Sometimes that has to do with the quality of the camera as well. There are some good guys out there doing the play-by-play, and they are entertaining in a way.”

Both junior hockey teams based in Lewiston-Auburn, the Maine Nordiques of the North American Hockey League and the Twin City Thunder of the United States Premier Hockey League, have high-definition cameras. In fact, the Nordiques have multiple cameras and installed a $40,000 replay system for the video board that sits above center ice at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee.

The Nordiques invested so much in technology for not only the fan experience, but to give college coaches a clear picture of the team’s players.

“I can’t comment enough how many people have enjoyed the different camera angles and things of that nature,” Maine Nordiques coach Nolan Howe said. “With our HockeyTV broadcasts, they are able to see the game from a lot of different vantage points; most players in juniors don’t have access to those kinds of angles. For ourselves, we have the InStat program, so as a staff we can send teams (individual player) shifts and highlights of certain things.”

The USPHL, meanwhile, is broadcasting every game of its Hub City event in Wesley Chapel, Florida — which the Twin City Thunder are participating in — in HD.

“The league will have all high-definition encoders and cameras down there,” Thunder co-owner and NCDC team coach Dan Hodge said last month. “It will be a production, that’s for sure. It’s going to be special.”

University of New England coach Kevin Swallow said he doesn’t watch a game without first doing some research.

“I have found you can’t go into a game completely blind,” Swallow said. “If I am watching teams out in Texas, and I go in completely blind of just watching a game and trying to figure out who I like out there, it’s very challenging. You have to do your homework ahead of time and focus in on a few players when you watch a game online now.”

Twin City Thunder forward Noah Furman committed to play for Swallow at UNE while in Wesley Chapel, Florida.

College coaches need to develop a network of people they can trust for evaluations about players they are recruiting.

“One of the tough things … is most coaches say their players are all great kids and great players,” Dumais said. “You have to be careful with that, and you have to talk to the guys you know and trust the most. You kind of have to go off what you see.”

Dumais said he asks the coaches the standard questions like, what type of person is the player on and off the ice, is he a good teammate and hockey-specific questions.

Dumais, who helped St. Dom’s to the 1999 and 2000 Class A state championships, said that one coach he can rely on is his former high school teammate, Derek Damon, who retired after last season from a long pro career and joined the coaching staff of the Salmon Arm Silverbacks of the British Columbia Hockey League, one of the top junior A leagues in Canada. Dumais’ team, Quinnipiac, has 13 BCHL alums on its roster.

RECRUITING TRANSFERS

The pandemic has led more Division I schools recruiting players who are in search of a new, different opportunity. Eleven D-I schools decided not to play this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the six Ivy league schools that play in the ECAC conference.

The NCAA allowed a waiver this year for players to transfer and immediately be eligible to play for their new school.

“What’s really happening now is the transfer portal, there’s a ton of kids on the transfer portal, new kids come up every day,” Dumais said. “What’s really changing right now for us with this pandemic, the NCAA is giving every kid an extra year (of eligibility). So, every kid has five years of eligibility now, and in January it looks like the NCAA is going to pass the one-time transfer rule. Now kids are going to be able to leave a certain school and go to another school (and) they will be able to play right away.

“For us and most schools, I think that’s the biggest thing that’s changing and is going to make a huge impact in college hockey is the grad transfers, the fifth-year transfers and one-time transfers.”

Quinnipiac is will add defenseman Tony Stillwell next year as a grad transfer. Stillwell played at Brown University, an Ivy League school, the pervious three years. Kents Hill’s Jared Cockrell graduated from Colgate University last year and is now a grad transfer at St. Cloud State.

UNE’s Swallow monitors the transfer portal — it is for players going from Division I school to a Division I school, but it also allows him to see which players are looking for a new opportunity.

“(The transfer portal) give us the ability to contact them,” Swallow said. “I have access to the transfer portal, so if I see a kid in the transfer portal, and as long it says he’s willing to receive calls from other schools, I can reach out to him. It has been beneficial for us.”

PLUS SIDE TO NO GAMES

While the University of Maine has played 10 games this season — though their season is currently on hold through at least Feb. 4 — the seasons for Maine’s Division III have not yet started. There is a benefit to that: they have more time to recruit.

“I am a little old fashioned, I like to be in the rinks and watching the kids live,” Swallow said. “We have hit the New England region hard this fall and focused our efforts there. Like I said before, it’s almost beneficial not playing games because there were so many games in this area this fall.”

As with anything with sporting events during the coronavirus pandemic, schedules can change in an instant.

“I will say that this year, we have been very thorough. Before every game, I have called the coach and called whoever at the rink to make sure, A, there was a game happening, and, B, that scouts and fans were being allowed,” Swallow said. “Every building and every state has different rules, and those rules change day-to-day. We had to make sure we were thorough and make sure we didn’t waste our time driving two hours to a game and realizing we wouldn’t be able to watch the game.”

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