Championship Week: RIT

      Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology is the least known among this week’s Frozen Four entrants. RIT (28-11-1) meets Wisconsin (27-10-4) at 4 p.m. Thursday at Ford Field in Detroit. RIT has already elmininated WCHA regular-season champion and now is setting its sights on the second-place Badgers. Kevin Oklobzija of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle had this story Monday on what’s it’s like to recruit at RIT:

Kevin Oklobzija, Staff writer • April 5, 2010

Picture yourself as a hockey coach from Rochester Institute of Technology, and you’re on a recruiting trip in Ontario or Minnesota.

You’re ringing the doorbell at the home of a high school senior who, in the previous month, has spoken to Boston College coach Jerry York, Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves and Michigan coach Red Berenson.

It’s the doorbell at the home of a high school star who, in six months, will be drafted by an NHL team.

The other schools have offered a full-ride scholarship. In the coming years, the NHL will offer a seven-figure contract.

And what can you give him? A guaranteed roster spot for four years — and a bill for $39,000, the projected cost for an all-inclusive year of education at RIT.

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You’re right. Why ring the doorbell?

"Every one of those kids is going to Boston College or Wisconsin or Michigan," RIT coach Wayne Wilson said.

Which is why Wilson and assistant coaches Brian Hills and Dave Insalaco don’t go shopping for NHL first-rounders.

Instead, in their five years as an NCAA Division I hockey program, they have recruited the players who value an education as much as they do playing a hockey game. They visit rinks that are bypassed by most D-I powers in Hockey East or the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

And they find good hockey players. Just because NCAA rules prohibit RIT from offering athletic scholarships, in no way is this a case of getting to the buffet table after the prime rib is gone and settling for Salisbury steak.

RIT’s date with Wisconsin in Thursday’s Frozen Four semifinal is proof. The Tigers defeated the University of Denver 2-1 in the East Regional semifinals. There were 14 NHL draft picks on the Pioneers’ roster. There are none on RIT, though the Tigers’ media guide does list the players’ favorite NHL teams.

"I never felt that once the other schools are done, we’ll get what’s left over," Wilson said.

Not chopped liver

What he does get are players who, in many cases, were overlooked. Or players who weren’t quite ready for college when they were 18, so they played a year or two in a Junior A league, in the Midwest, Ontario or British Columbia. There are eight Americans, 15 Canadians and a goalie from Finland on the 24-man roster. It’s actually not a bad way to find players, especially since RIT has provided the hockey team with what Wilson says is a "competitive (recruiting) budget to reach out."

They can afford flights to Vancouver in addition to using the school-provided Chevrolet Impala, which has 90,000 recruiting miles in just two years. They can assist in financial aid applications but because the rest of RIT’s athletic programs compete in Division III, athletic scholarships aren’t allowed.

Wilson uses the NHL draft system to draw an analogy of the recruiting philosophy. NHL teams are drafting 18-year-olds who in most cases have played just two years of major junior. Sometimes they’re still in high school. Scouts are forced to project the maturation process, both physical and mental.

But if the minimum draft age were 20, there would be fewer misses and first-round busts.

For RIT, they aren’t making final decisions until most recruits are 20 or even 21.

"It would be like drafting guys after one or two years in the American Hockey League, rather than drafting them at 18," Wilson said.

That’s why, when Wilson is recruiting, he doesn’t watch a potential superstar and wonder what the player can’t do. Instead, he’s looking at a potential diamond in the rough and envisioning a great penalty-killer or power-play specialist.

"I’m always looking at the positives," Wilson said. "When you’re drafting a first-rounder, you’re wondering what the guy can’t do. When you’re looking at a seventh-rounder, you’re looking at what he can do."

4-year commitment

And once those players arrive at RIT, they know Henrietta will be their home for four years. Since the NHL hadn’t come knocking years before, the players realize the RIT sweater may very well be the last they wear.

"This may be it for some of us," said freshman center Adam Hartley, who turns 22 today. "We’re all 20-plus. We might not be going to the AHL or NHL. In a way, it’s our Stanley Cup."

On occasion the Tigers even beat out one of the big boys for a recruit. Sean Murphy turned down Notre Dame, even though he initially didn’t know RIT from RIP.

"I’m from Minnesota; I’d never heard of Rochester, N.Y., let alone Rochester Institute of Technology," said the junior right winger from Owatonna, Minn. "RIT was the first school that contacted me, but I kind of wrote them off."

Especially after Notre Dame came calling.

"My eyes lit up," Murphy said. "An amazing school, an amazing reputation. I knew that to be an athlete there would be awesome."

Or would it? In the coming weeks and months, Murphy decided it wouldn’t be so great.

"I couldn’t see myself being there four years and enjoying college as much as I could somewhere else," he said.

And so he told Notre Dame no thanks.

Freshman defenseman Chris Saracino of St. Louis didn’t know a lot about RIT when he was being recruited, either.

"But this is the place that felt like home," he said. "There’s always a question, ‘Would you come here if it wasn’t for hockey?’ I could say yes."

No "I" in team

Once the players get on the ice, there is always just one common objective: play for the team. "The team is always bigger than the person," said sophomore center Cameron Burt of Detroit. "I love being part of a team. You’re one pea in a pod, one piece of the puzzle."

It’s a puzzle with age, too. When it comes time to grow playoff beards, they can.

But that’s not the biggest advantage that comes from a roster of early to mid-20-somethings.

"With that age comes experience," Murphy said. "I think it’s a much easier transition being 21 or 22 years old instead of 17.

"Wherever you played before, everyone was the leading scorer, the best defenseman, the starting goalie. You get to college and you might be put in a different role. I think, being older and with that maturity, it’s a lot easier to accept those roles."

When recruiting, the coaches sell what RIT has to offer, but they don’t pile on the cream cheese.

"We’re promising a spot on the team, but playing time is up to you," Wilson said. "We’re not a program where the leading scorer gets what he wants and the guy that’s not playing doesn’t get sticks. You treat people equal as people and ice time is my decision."

Many collegiate programs can wow a recruit with palatial arenas. They boast rinks where the dressing room and weight rooms are better equipped than some hotel suites.

RIT, on the other hand, gets to show off a one-room studio apartment that lists running water and electricity as the amenities.

"We have to sell it hard when kids are here during the week," Wilson said, "but our facility sells itself when we’re playing a game.

"The thing is, it’s for the students. These guys are playing for the students."

Pride sells

That’s what sold freshman center Jeff Smith, a Spokane, Wash., native who was recruited by Ohio State.

"I was stunned to see how exciting games are here," he said. "Here I felt I’d fit in a lot better. I wasn’t really into the huge, 60,000-people school."

Each year, Wilson knows he will lose six to eight players from his roster — to graduation and only graduation. That, too, is an advantage that traditional NCAA powers don’t enjoy. Those teams continually lose undergraduates to NHL teams.

Just last week, Denver sophomore winger Joe Colborne signed with the Boston Bruins.

"The elite, elite programs (Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State) would continue to be elite if no one ever left early for the NHL," Wilson said. "We don’t have to predict what kids will do. When we lose guys, we’re prepared for their departures because they’re seniors."

While this unexpected trip to the Frozen Four has thrust RIT into the collegiate hockey forefront, Wilson won’t be changing the way he recruits. RIT won’t start chasing potential NHL first-rounders.

"The kids that are getting that much attention at that age are going to another school," he said.

And Wilson and the Tigers are OK with that.

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