All Blake Lizotte wanted was a jersey.
Not for himself, and not one of his own game-used St. Cloud State uniforms either. A custom replica hockey sweater was all he desired, one with his last name across the back, that his family members could have bought and proudly displayed during his two-year collegiate career at a university only 45 miles from his Minnesota hometown.
“My family just wanted to wear a ‘Lizotte’ jersey,” he said.
But the bureaucratic red tape of NCAA regulations got in the way. The arbitrary rules of amateurism wouldn’t allow it.
“No one would print my name on a St. Cloud jersey,” said Lizotte, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Kings last April. “They literally couldn’t.”
Such a scenario might soon change.
When the NCAA Board of Governors voted unanimously Tuesday to permit college athletes to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness — with the caveat it occur “in a manner consistent with the collegiate model” — attention was immediately fixated on football and men’s basketball.
Will Heisman Trophy candidates be allowed to sign endorsement deals? Will top basketball prospects finally be allowed to formally partner with shoe companies? Will the athletes who generate millions of dollars of revenue for their schools at last be allowed to profit themselves?
Similar questions can be asked about the future of college hockey too.
Though it pales in national prestige compared to its counterparts, men’s ice hockey holds a unique place in the collegiate athletics landscape. Though there are only 60 NCAA Division I programs, including four in the mountain time zone and none along the West Coast, the sport is the biggest attraction on many of those campuses.
Take the Buffalo Sabres’ Jack Eichel and Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar as recent examples. Makar, the No. 4 overall pick in the 2017 draft, became a regional star the last two seasons at UMass-Amherst.
“If they were selling Cale Makar jerseys at UMass last year,” said Joe Meloni, a senior writer for College Hockey News, “there would have been 2,000 of them in the crowd every game.”
In 2014-15, Eichel reached even greater levels of exposure during his one and only season at Boston University (he was drafted No. 2 overall behind Connor McDavid in 2015). That year, the school packed its intimate 6,000-seat arena for home games, turned away some media requests to make room for outlets such as the New York Times, and had several of its games broadcast by Canadian sports channel TSN.
“There is celebrity for college hockey players,” Meloni said. “It’s muted in comparison to football and basketball, but at a school like BU that isn’t a basketball powerhouse and doesn’t even have a football team, hockey is everything. There is a lot of opportunity for this.”
This year, Kings prospect Alex Turcotte (the No. 5 overall pick in this summer’s draft) has similar star potential as a freshman with the Wisconsin Badgers. No other current college player was drafted as early as Turcotte, and Fox Sports West is airing 11 Badgers games in Southern California.
“I mean, would Alex Turcotte be better off with a stick deal? With a skate deal?” said Todd Milewski, who covers Badgers hockey for the Wisconsin State Journal and is also the executive editor of college hockey outlet USCHO. “These are big questions that need to get answered. And how it works is the bigger question.”
Indeed, it remains unclear exactly how the NCAA might reform its amateurism rules, a long-debated topic that was spurred this year by the passage of California Senate Bill 206.
Still, at the very least, the sale of custom merchandise suddenly seems like a realistic possibility. Even on college hockey’s smaller scale, it isn’t difficult to imagine even greater opportunities in the future.
“For the hockey part of it, there are some dominant players that have come through and probably could have been benefactors.” said Kings coach Todd McLellan, whose son, Tyson, is a senior on the University of Denver’s Division I team.
“We couldn’t ask for anything over or above that [for Tyson]. But there are some athletes that generate a lot of revenue for schools and other students that maybe should be allowed that opportunity.”
Of the nine current Kings players who previously played in the NCAA, not everyone was as optimistic of potential widespread impacts.
“I was never a part of a situation where we were bringing in such an enormous amount of revenue,” said defenseman Sean Walker, who graduated from Bowling Green in 2017. “Personally, I was just happy to have my full scholarship and go to school, and if they were going to use my image, that was fine with me.”
There is also a question as to whether more relaxed NCAA regulations would simplify the junior-hockey structure. Currently, players in the Canadian Hockey League (which is the top junior league in North America and allows players to participate even after signing a professional contract) are ineligible for NCAA play, thus preventing some of the game’s top prospects from enrolling at the collegiate level.
But as the world of collegiate athletics, the hockey community included, braces for change, there is hope that the NCAA is headed down a positive, progressive path.
“It’s a step in the right direction for sure,” Lizotte said. “It just loosens things up, which is great.”