The conversation may have taken place nearly three years ago, but Jack LaFontaine still remembers it vividly.
During his sophomore year of high school, the now-freshman goaltender for the Michigan hockey team was in Ann Arbor to watch the Wolverines take on Penn State. LaFontaine, still a relatively unheralded prospect in search of an offer, met with the coaching staff for the first time after the game.
LaFontaine smiled while recalling that talk with Michigan coach Red Berenson. Clearly, it still holds weight with him — a marker of his past and the path he took.
“I finally introduced myself to coach (Berenson),” LaFontaine said. “I remember him saying, ‘Go develop, do your thing and come talk to me in a couple years.’ ”
Sure enough, two years later, LaFontaine found himself back in Ann Arbor, albeit under different circumstances. This time, he was a highly-coveted prospect in the midst of a stint with the United States Hockey League’s Janesville Jets, projected to be taken in the NHL Draft later that spring. And this time, when he met with Berenson, the coach offered him a scholarship.
After the visit, LaFontaine went home to Canada, discussed it with his family and then called both Berenson and assistant coach Brian Wiseman to let them know he was committing to Michigan. He didn’t officially commit until nearly a week after his visit, but LaFontaine had laid in bed the previous Friday — the night he arrived in Ann Arbor — with an inkling that he wanted to be a Wolverine.
While the natural progression from unofficial visit to official visit to commitment may have once been common practice, the pace of recruiting in college hockey has quickened so much that stories like LaFontaine’s are now unique.
That phenomenon has taken place in most collegiate sports. It was once standard for athletes to commit to a school during their senior year, but now top recruits are committing to schools earlier and earlier. Freshman forward Will Lockwood committed in the spring of 2014 as a sophomore in high school. Jacob Truscott, a 14-year-old defenseman in the 2020-21 class, committed this past Saturday.
As Berenson says, it’s an “ever-changing process,” and it has caused a shift to the types of visits that players take.
LaFontaine’s interest in Michigan was initially piqued by his first trip to Ann Arbor — dubbed an “unofficial visit” by the NCAA.
Recruits can take unofficial visits to schools whenever they want. The only caveat is that the athlete and his family must pay their own way. The school, as bound by NCAA rules, cannot pay for their travel or lodging, among other expenses. Most of the work Michigan has to do involves contacting the ticket office to let them know which games the recruit will be visiting for, or the coaches setting aside time to meet with the player and his family.
Schools, however, can pay for a recruit’s official visit, but recruits must wait until at least their senior year to take one.
This is where the acceleration of the recruiting process comes into play: with players choosing to commit earlier in the process, schools can no longer afford to bring them in only on official visits. In Michigan’s case, the assistant coaches — and Berenson, to a lesser extent — are constantly involved with setting up unofficial visits, either during the season or the offseason.
“The official visit is important,” Berenson said. “But the unofficial visit might be the most important, where they come early and realize, ‘Oh, this is where I want to go.’ They might get blown away the first time they come here.”
Luckily for the Wolverines, they already have a built-in advantage compared to teams like Arizona State or Penn State: their geography.
Michigan is typically a hotbed for hockey, and the United States National Team Development Program practices just 30 minutes away from Ann Arbor. The city is also within driving distance of much of Canada. The more manageable the distance, the easier it is for recruits to take unofficial visits to Michigan early in the process, before they leave their hometowns to finish their prep careers in junior leagues like the USHL.
While the Wolverines have extended their reach nationally as the sport has grown in the past few decades, the team is still mostly comprised of players from the surrounding region. Of the 28 players on the roster, 13 are from Michigan and six are from the Midwest or Canada.
Despite the growing importance of unofficial visits, official visits still serve a valuable purpose. They can solidify the status of a recruit wavering on his verbal commitment, grow the relationship between a player and his future coaches and teammates, or allow players to compare different schools.
And perhaps most importantly for Michigan, a school that deals with early or unexpected departures nearly every offseason, official visits allow the coaching staff to showcase the school late in the recruiting process to recruits who haven’t committed yet at all, like LaFontaine, or who are reconsidering their initial decision — like freshman forward Jake Slaker.
In the summer of 2015, Slaker verbally committed to St. Lawrence University, and his recruitment appeared to be over.
But in March of 2016, Greg Carvel — previously the head coach of the Saints — left for the University of Massachusetts. Citing the coaching change, Slaker underwent a process to get out of his National Letter of Intent, which had bound him to St. Lawrence, and found himself undergoing the recruiting process all over again in the spring of his senior year. Luckily for Slaker, a few schools immediately expressed their interest, including Michigan.
“… As soon as I got out and other schools were allowed to talk to me, Michigan talked to me and I narrowed it down to a few schools I wanted to visit,” Slaker said. “Michigan was one of them, and (the visit) happened within a week after my season ended.
“I set up a few other visits and this was my last one, because this was where I thought I wanted to go before visiting, and I just wanted to solidify it with just seeing other schools and comparing it to here.”
The script for an official visit to Ann Arbor is usually the same for most recruits, according to Berenson. The recruits will arrive in the evening, eat dinner with a current team member assigned as their host and spend time with the host and the rest of the team. The recruit will also tour the campus and meet with academic officials before visiting the hockey facilities and spending time with the coaches. In most cases, the recruit will also attend practice and a game, before the trip concludes with a meeting in Berenson’s office.
Yet, while most official visit itineraries are similar, what resonates the most with each individual recruit is often different. For Slaker, it was how the coaching staff watched film with him.
“They videotape every practice and they’ll break it down and look at what guys need to work on,” Slaker said. “There’s always extra ice in the morning for guys to work on depending on classes. They were showing me videos of guys working on stuff in the mornings and incorporating it into games. After talking to the coaching staff and seeing everything that they do and how professional it is, I thought it was the best opportunity to give me a shot to play pro hockey.”
His visit to Michigan only confirmed what he had already been feeling, and he didn’t take much time in making his second commitment — on the second day of his visit, he told Berenson he wanted to be a Wolverine.
While Slaker enjoyed the technical breakdown of his future at Michigan, LaFontaine was most enamored with the family feel he got from Michigan.
“The people here are just good people,” LaFontaine said. “I’m not saying the people at other schools weren’t — they were great people — but for some reason, I just had a great vibe from the coaching staff here. I can’t really describe it in words. But I know that if you surround yourself with good people, good things happen to you.”
By now, Berenson has delegated most of the recruiting responsibilities to other staff members like associate head coach Billy Powers and Wiseman. It was Wiseman who served as the primary contact for both Slaker and LaFontaine before each took their official visit to Michigan.
Perhaps that is by design. Berenson has a legendary reputation within the sport, and at this point, he has been a coach for long before any recruit was born. So when a recruit steps into Berenson’s office, having had little prior contact and not knowing what to expect, something as simple as a short face-to-face conversation can still have the most meaningful impact.
“It was surreal,” Slaker said. “His history speaks for itself. It was kinda shocking just to get to shake his hand. I felt really honored to have an opportunity to play here. It was really cool meeting him and getting to talk to him a bit and see where he saw me in the lineup and where he thought I could be as a player. It got me really excited about coming here.”
Added LaFontaine: “… I remember sitting down at practice, and coach (Berenson) just telling me all these great stories. Not even Michigan-related, just about his time as a professional hockey player and his time as a coach. It was by far the most unique visit I’ve had.”
It’s in those final meetings where Berenson gets to state his final case on unofficial or official visits, and he has secured many a commitment doing so.
“We had one kid — his name was Luke Moffatt,” Berenson said. “I told him, ‘We’re not going to rush you. You take your time and decide and let us know what you want to do.’ And right away, he ripped off his overshirt and he had a Michigan hockey shirt underneath, and he said, ‘That’s my answer.’ That was one of the more memorable ones.”
At this point, there isn’t much complexity to Berenson’s pitch. As a visit comes to an end, the recruit and school have become familiar with each other. By the time they met with Berenson, Slaker and LaFontaine knew what type of opportunities a Michigan offer presented, and so he didn’t have to sell the program very hard.
“We’re very transparent,” Berenson said. “They can ask any questions. We lay it all out, and this is Michigan. It’s pretty hard not to like it. If you’re looking for a good school and a good program, that’s what we offer. I would say that goes for all our sports here. You get the best of both worlds.”