This is part two of two of Drew’s conversation with the Falcons’ head hockey coach Ty Eigner. You can read part one here.
Drew Evans: Do you feel teams in the WCHA keep things ethical when it comes to recruiting?
Ty Eigner: I was talking to Curtis (Carr) yesterday about it and he said: “It seems like everybody in your league seems to do things the right way.” We have a bunch of good coaches in our league and a bunch of guys, that when I was on the road recruiting, I’d sit by them and talk to them. We’d probably be watching the same kid.
There are no issues, I don’t think, with guys in our league poaching or taking the other guys. At least I haven’t heard a bunch of it. I think they do things the right way because we have to. Where we’re at, the schools in our league cannot afford to have a reputation of not doing things the right way. Because you go down that path and all of a sudden that hurts you. Where some other schools that maybe don’t do things the right way that have kids decommitting or pushing kids back, whatever the case is, they’re going to get the next kid. That’s just who they are.
DE: Following up on that, are there recruiting behaviors you’ve seen at other programs that you’d like to see culled?
TE: I know that at our meetings in Florida I asked the question of some guys while we were sitting around having a beer, “I’m new to the head coach position. Do you see things changing?” When you’re a sport of 60 schools everybody knows everybody. You see people at rinks and there’s relationships. I just see things changing, not necessarily for the better in terms of whether it’s the Gentlemen’s Agreement or whether it’s the way people go about the recruiting process (editor’s note: the gentlemen’s agreement was a handshake agreement that stated hockey coaches would not recruit or talk to players who had verbally committed to a program).
I think it’s got to the point that some people in some places are just fed up with how our recruiting is going. They’re either going to just keep to themselves and do their own thing and not worry about it, or you’re going to see people turn other people in. If they see a violation then they’re just going to say “I’m done. I’m done watching this stuff happen.” I’ve heard that from other people. We’ll see how that goes.
DE: Will Bowling Green continue to honor the Gentlemen’s Agreement?
TE: We’ve honored that for nine years and I don’t see us not honoring it. I don’t see a reason to not. Now, will the new recruiting rules change the number of kids? I think you saw a huge push in the number of commitments prior to May 1stwhen that new rule went into effect. It’ll be interesting to see how those kids, who committed before May 1stof this year that, technically, over the next year and a half no school will be able to have contact with that kid. So, if you think about this, as a parent or a young player: you’ve committed to “School X” as a young guy, and over the next 18 months you are not allowed to talk to that school? I don’t know if that’s a healthy relationship.
DE: If there was one specific rule you could change in terms of recruiting, what would it be?
TE: We talk about recruiting all the time and I’m all about leveling the playing field and giving everyone an opportunity. But I don’t think that’s real. I do think the age thing is a positive in the big picture. Again, we’re talking about an investment and our sport is unique. We don’t have more scholarships than opportunities like other sports. We have more players playing than we have scholarships available. So, you can’t afford to make a mistake. You got to hit on players you offer scholarships to. You’re never going to be perfect, but you can’t make a bunch of mistakes because that hurts you. You’ve got 27 players in your roster and 18 scholarships to work with. So, there’s a bunch of kids in there that you need to be what you thought they were through the recruiting process.
I think for the players and for the programs if you can back that up and make it 16, 17, 18 years old you have a better opportunity to have less mistakes being made. I don’t think there’s a negative to making recruiting a little bit older. As a parent of young kids, I don’t know that any of my kids are prepared to make a decision on their college experience and the program they want to play in when they’re in ninth grade. Now, that’s my own children, so maybe other people think their kids can make that decision. I just think we have other issues we need to worry about in college hockey than whether a 15-year-old is committed to someone or not.
DE: The sales pitch you had 10 years ago to potential recruits is a lot different than what you’re telling kids now. What’s the sales pitch in 2019?
TE: I think what we were doing the first four, five years of our career was selling a plan. Believe in this plan and we believe that it’s going to work. “Here’s the plan, here’s what we do, here’s how we operate at Bowling Green, and this is what we can tell you is going to happen on a day-to-basis.” But we didn’t have the results, and people believed in the plan. And now we’ve got the plan and the results so I think it’s a little different.
I think we continue to make it about people. I’m a 100% believer in that it has to be about the right kind of people. People that absolutely, 100% want to be at Bowling Green for all the right reasons. If school X, Y, or Z comes knocking after they’ve made their verbal agreement to Bowling Green? It’s “Nope, I don’t care who you are. I’m going to Bowling Green and this is exactly where I want to be because this is where I belong.” That’s our pitch and we’ve had success on the ice, we’ve had success in the classroom, our players are getting degrees, our graduation rate is great, they’re going on to play pro hockey.
Again, you just have to decide if this is the right place. If your decision is based on the size of a football stadium or the color of a jersey, or the kind of stick we use then you’re not going to fit here anyway. So, finding our kind of kid who 100% believes Bowling Green is the exact perfect place for him is what we’ll continue to do.
DE: Are you happy with the WCHA as a league for Bowling Green?
TE: When the shift came five, six years ago I think it gave us an opportunity from a competitive standpoint. You saw us making strides in the CCHA, which was a really good league, and you saw our win total increase. We were winning playoff series every year. I think we would have continued on that path.
Realistically, going into the WCHA I think it gave us a chance to win a few more games based on the level of competition. We were kind of going this way (upwards) while other teams were maybe going the other way a little bit. Am I happy with it? I’m not crazy mad about it. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to me with the geographic footprint. But that’s somebody above my pay grade that’s going to have to determine that it’s not right for us. I do think that some point you’re going to see another shift in college hockey. Because our footprint is crazy when the footprint could be better for a lot of schools. Not just Bowling Green, I’m talking about a common-sense approach to trying to figure it out. I’m not unhappy with it. We’re a really good team in a league that has a bunch of really hard teams to play against.
Obviously, the issue that comes up a lot is the pairwise. The margin of error in our league is basically zero. The teams that are in the bottom of the pairwise play hard just like everyone else. You know, you’ve followed college hockey long enough to know that anybody can beat anybody on any night. Unfortunately, if you’re in a league where you’re number four and you lose to 18 it’s not really a big deal. But if you’re number four and you lose to 60 that stings a lot. It’s hard to get 18 to 23-year-old kids to be “on” every single night. It just doesn’t happen.
There hasn’t been an undefeated team in forever in any college sport. It’s just really, really hard. I guess the biggest issue is our margin of error is significantly less than other leagues and hopefully, we find a way for those opportunities that we have every Friday and Saturday to understand the value and importance of that, without putting pressure on ourselves, and take advantage of that. We talk about it all the time: Minnesota State has found a way to not let those opportunities slip away. That’s why they’ve won as many games as they’ve won and that’s why they’ve had themselves in a position where they know they’re going to be in the national tournament.
DE: If there was ever a proposal for a “bus-trip” league which more closely followed Bowling Green’s footprint, would that be something you’d be interested in?
TE: People talk about potential options all the time. Whether it’s an Atlantic Hockey and a WCHA partnership or whether it’s some new way to merge leagues or scheduling agreements. At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is figure out what’s best for Bowling Green. I think every team in our league is doing the same thing. At the end of the year, you sit down and evaluate all facets of your program. I think today, more than ever, in college hockey one of the biggest issues is your budget. Our league puts a huge strain on everyone in our team’s budget. So, at some point, can we continue to afford to do this? Can we do it at Bowling Green? I don’t know. Someone is going to tell me yes or no. But I know those conversations are happening on every other campus in our league.
People can have an opinion from a competitive standpoint, a rivalry standpoint, from a distance standpoint, but I think when it comes to money then I think people’s ears perk up and they start listening and wondering if this is the best long term option for us.
DE: There have been feelers in the past from the NCHC to Bowling Green about possibly joining their league. Is that something you’d entertain?
TE: Again, you’d really have to do your due diligence on that. What are the pros, what are the cons? I look at our league: there’s good coaches in our league now and we’d basically be getting on a plane every time in that league. Is that the best thing for Bowling Green? I don’t know that. Obviously, it’s a very good league from a competitive standpoint. They’ve got a bunch of programs committed to hockey. As that league stands today we’d be bussing to Western Michigan and Miami and I don’t know how many of those other ones we’d be bussing to. Are we bussing to St. Cloud, to Duluth, to Omaha? Obviously, you’re flying to the two Colorado schools and probably in to Grand Forks. Again, you’d have to weigh the pros and cons of that and I’d think if they added one school they’d have to add two. You wouldn’t want to stay at nine.
I’ve not had conversations with anybody from that league. I don’t know where they’re at in terms of expansion. I just know where we’re at right now: I really like where our program is internally in things we can control. We’re in as good of a spot as we’ve been in 29 years from every facet of our program. Now, the one thing we can’t control, necessarily, is what league we’re in and what other teams in our league are doing. We’ve got to focus on us. That’s my main goal right now.
DE: As things stand today, do you feel you have the resources in place to compete for both league and national championships on a yearly basis?
TE: Yes, 100%.
DE: Let’s say a donor hands you a blank check which can go towards any need, project, or resource for your program. What’s the number one priority on your list?
TE: That’s a good question. I think there’s a really good plan in place to finish the south end of the arena. I’ve seen the pictures and what the plan is. If we can finish that it’d be great. Our building is a fun building to play in. It’s loud, we’ve got a great locker room, a great lounge, great office space. I think every program wants more, but I don’t necessarily think we have to have more. Our bells and whistles are good right now. But you’re always trying to improve, and not that you’re trying to keep up with Jones’, but you’re trying to make sure you continue to make your players and future players understand you’re committed to this thing.
So, I think finishing that end of the arena would be a really cool thing to do. Because it would be “done.” We would have a finished product out there because people come into our building and it’s a fun college building to play in. You asked the question about the budget and my short answer was yes, but again, we’re continually moving forward. My conversations throughout the interview process were all positive in terms of what Bowling Green hockey means to Bowling Green State University. You make it to the national tournament and you can win hockey games if you play the right way. I think we’re right where need to be. Are there things that we’d love to have? Yeah, but are they be-all-end-all, line in the sand, have-to-have or we’re never going to win another game? No, I don’t think so. I think finishing that end of the arena would be priority number one for everyone involved with Bowling Green hockey.
DE: There have been discussions about the NCAA allowing teams to hire a third assistant coach. Is that something you would be in favor of?
TE: From what I understand I think that’s something that, overall, our 60 schools in division one hockey would love to see happen — to provide other opportunities for other coaches. It wouldn’t be a $100,000 per year position. But I think that’s critical for us when you’re talking about that person being a young player looking to get into coaching, just retired from playing who wants to get into coaching or a goaltender coach. A lot of volunteer coaches would probably transition into that position. That would be really good and we 100% would be in support of that.
DE: As a coach, I know that you care for all of your players. But how did it feel, as someone who specialized in coaching defensemen, to see two of your former defensemen (Sean Walker and Mark Friedman) make their NHL debuts this season?
TE: I think it’s awesome. We’ve been fortunate to have some pretty good defensemen come through here in the last nine years that have gone on and done some really good things. We take great pride in that. When we recruited those guys, we felt they had an opportunity to be really good for us and to play after Bowling Green. I think we have guys on our current roster who are going to do the same thing. They’re going to follow in Sean and Mark’s footsteps. That’s something that we recruit to. I 100% believe that we’ve got players on our roster right now and coming in the future that are going to be just like Sean and Mark.
You’re super proud of those kids when they get a chance to play in the NHL and you get to put them up on the NHL wall (editor’s note: the hockey lounge features a wall that lists every Falcon who has played a game in the NHL). Those are great things because it makes it easier to recruit the next one – the next Sean Walker, the next Mark Friedman.
DE: The alumni golf outing each year grows exponentially. What’s been the key to re-engaging the alumni base to get them back to Bowling Green every year?
TE: We said it from the beginning: just give us a chance. Give us a chance to earn your trust, earn your respect, and come back and have fun. It’s not about whether you were a national champion or you were a team that didn’t have a bunch of success. It’s about the program and the guys you went through the program with. A lot of people have heard that message and are happy to come back. The way we’ve opened the doors to them and allow them to say “Hey, this is as much for you as it is for anybody.” Whether you won or lost, that’s not the point. The point is that you come back and you be engaged in this thing and you have a good time experiencing Bowling Green again for a weekend with the guys you experienced it with.
I 100% believe this year will be as big of an event as we’ve had in the past. We’ve grown, I think, every year. I’ve been in charge of it so I believe it’s gotten bigger every year and I don’t see that not happening because what we’ve done is, especially the guys that have been here with us, continue to come back. Sometimes we have a couple of weddings in there because guys are getting to that age where they’re getting married, but I don’t see a reason why this year won’t be as big as any we’ve had in 10 years.
DE: At other programs, there’s an emphasis played on alumni support – both in general support and financial support – after a player leaves the program. Is that something you see happening at Bowling Green too?
TE: I think we certainly have that opportunity. Now, more than ever, alumni engagement, alumni involvement, and alumni financial support to the institution or the program that they were a part of at the institution is critical. Again, the dollars just aren’t the same they were 20 years ago.
I think our alums in particular, in hockey, are as engaged as they’ve been in a long, long time. I’m really excited about that and I think we’re going to look at ways to keep them engaged. We want them to support the program emotionally and financially without putting a burden on one person. We don’t want them to not want to come back to Bowling Green because they feel “every time I come back they’re asking me for money.” I want them to want to say “Hey, how can we help. We’re so excited about the future of this program; how can we help?” That’s the goal. We want them to want to be a part of this thing, whether it be coming back to watch games, or being in the golf outing, or if we’re fortunate enough to have someone support us financially – we want that. Those are all critical pieces moving forward.
DE: Is this your dream job?
TE: Yes. It’s been humbling, overwhelming at times. Just the fact that I was sitting in these offices – I haven’t actually moved officially from that desk (in the assistant coaches’ office) to over there (the head coach’s office). Not for any particular reason, I just have all my stuff and have waited for the opportunity to officially move. Curtis and Mac weren’t here yet but I know I have to get out of my chair, though actually, the chair I have is more comfortable than the one in there (laughs).
But, being on the road I don’t believe I’m any different than I was the day before I got the job, but you can’t help but to feel different. Now, there’s added responsibility and I 100% appreciate that and understand it. I know now that like it or not, and I like it, believe me, I’m looked at as the person who’s running the ship. I’ve dreamed about this for a long time and I’ve hoped at some point I’d get this opportunity, and I’m absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity. I can promise you and anyone else who’s willing to listen that we’re going to doing anything and everything we can to keep this thing moving forward and make it a program that alumni, community members, and people on campus are incredibly proud of. Because, again, I’m incredibly proud of what we have today, and there’s no way that I’m going to do anything but give my best moving forward to keep this thing pushing ahead.