The NCAA is investigating possible financial aid violations by the University of New England that abruptly derailed the academic and athletic plans of six Canadian students this season and could result in sanctions for the hockey program.

The investigation is apparently focusing on whether UNE, as a Division III school, broke NCAA rules that prohibit athletic scholarships for Division III athletes.

Kody Collins, a UNE sophomore defenseman from Keswick, Ontario, said he and five teammates were blindsided just weeks before the 2010-11 school year began when UNE asked them to come up with more than $8,000 each to replace financial aid the school had originally awarded them through a UNE Diversity Scholarship.

UNE told the students that if they wanted to play for the Nor’easters hockey team, they would have to come up with the money themselves. If they wanted to keep the scholarship funds, they would not be able to play hockey, he said.

“We were shocked,” said Collins, who sat on the sidelines this year because he took the scholarship. “But I figured it was an issue that could be resolved. The options they gave us were to pay the additional amount and stay on the team, or not pay it, but not play hockey.

“All they said was they were trying to comply with NCAA rules and regulations,” he said. “Every time we asked who we could talk to, it was just a big circle. So instead I’m getting penalized personally for a mistake they made. I’ll never have that year of hockey back.”

Stacey Osburn, an NCAA spokeswoman, said the organization’s policy is to refrain from comment on matters under NCAA review.

“The school has some leeway as to whether or not they want to discuss the status of an investigation,” Osburn said. “But we can’t comment until an investigation has been closed.”

A UNE administrator said the NCAA is studying financial reports the school is required to submit yearly, and the college is cooperating fully. It may take several months for the review to be completed.

“We’re cooperating with them in good faith,” said John Tumiel, senior adviser to President Danielle Ripich. “We’ve agreed to not get out in front. When they have reached their conclusion, we will have a more detailed statement as well.”

Thomas White, UNE’s vice president for communications, said the school is eager to respond.

“At which time we can, we will,” White said. “My take on this is that there was nothing the university did intentionally to flout these regulations. … Mutually, we’re trying to get to the bottom of this to find out what happened.”

AN ETHICAL ISSUE

UNE has a picturesque main campus along the Saco River in Biddeford and a branch in Portland. It had a total enrollment of 6,328 last year.

The school offers some 30 undergraduate majors in the College of Osteopathic Medicine and the College of Arts and Sciences and 14 athletic programs in men’s and women’s sports. The Nor’easters compete in The Commonwealth Coast Conference, with the exception of men’s hockey, which competes in the Eastern College Athletic Conference East League.

Collins, 21, the Ontario student, played his freshman season at UNE but sat out this season. He plans to transfer to the University of Southern Maine to play hockey next year. He lost a year of hockey eligibility.

He said his family was asked to come up with a total of $8,422 when his Diversity Scholarship was reduced from $12,000 to $3,578 just weeks before the fall semester began.

The total cost of tuition at UNE is $40,740 a year, according to the school’s website.

The Collins family hired a lawyer in Portland when their demand for a written statement from the school explaining what happened left them with more questions than answers.

“I can’t speak to Kody’s legal rights, but I think it’s clear you’ve got an ethical issue here that is difficult to deal with,” said Matt Lane, an attorney with Preti Flaherty who represents the family. “It raises questions. UNE is going to point at the NCAA, and the NCAA will point at UNE. Who lost a year of eligibility? Kody Collins, who didn’t do anything wrong. He’s lost a year because of this. Because he wasn’t able to get advice early enough or come up with another $8,000.”

What appears to be in question, according to Lane and the Collins family, is a discrepancy between the amount of aid given to athletes and the amount awarded to the school’s general population.

According to the NCAA Division III manual, Section 15.4 under the heading of “Financial Aid,” “The financial aid package for a particular student-athlete cannot be clearly distinguishable from the general pattern of all financial aid for all recipients at the institution.”

White confirmed that is what is in question: “It was not as if we were denying them an opportunity to play hockey, but because of this NCAA requirement, we realized we cannot allow them to do both. Either (they) can play hockey or they can accept the financial aid, but not both.”

White said the school awards scholarships based not on diversity but on merit and need.

“A few years ago UNE offered diversity scholarships, but this has not been the case for a couple of years,” he said. “At that time, the university broadly defined diversity to consider not only racial/ethnic, geographical and religious background, but also students in need who came from a variety of nontraditional backgrounds.”

White could not explain why the letter Collins received last summer described his financial aid award as a “Diversity Scholarship.”

The NCAA began requiring Division III schools to keep track of financial aid awards to athletes compared with non-athletes in the 2005-06 academic year.

IGNORANCE NO EXCUSE

Infractions — both major and minor — have been reported since, and schools have been penalized regardless of whether they violated the policy knowingly.

In January, the NCAA sanctioned State University College at Buffalo after concluding that financial aid awards to members of the men’s and women’s hockey teams were disproportionately large. The sanctions included two years’ probation, financial aid restrictions and a postseason ban.

Bob Malakoff, an assistant professor of sports studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., said the NCAA would likely take honest errors into account when determining sanctions for rule violations.

But Malakoff, who previously sat on the NCAA Division III Management Council, disputed the general perception that large Division I schools are riddled with violations and the smaller Division III schools are completely clean.

“Neither is true,” he said. “I’m not suggesting there are hundreds cheating at financial aid, but to suggest no one ever did is silly.”

The Collins family said they were told that the financial aid package — which included the diversity scholarship Kody Collins received — would be renewable all four years. It was a major reason he chose to attend the Biddeford school.

In a June 1, 2009, email to Kody Collins’ mother, Nancy Collins, UNE’s associate director of admissions, Bob Pecchia, wrote: “Yes his scholarships are renewable.”

Kody Collins said he was never told the exact reason for being awarded a Diversity Scholarship, but he assumed being an international student was what qualified him. His grades, according to the family, are strong.

The Collinses could not afford the extra $8,000-plus a year. Nancy works for an insurance company, and Kody Collins’ father, Mike Collins, is a caretaker for a high school. They have one other son in college and a 15-year-old daughter, both of whom play hockey.

“We deserve a letter,” said Nancy Collins. “When Kody chose to attend UNE, we didn’t know anything about this. … It all comes down to they messed up somewhere and gave out too much money. I just want a letter explaining what they did wrong. I don’t want other people to have to go through this.”

HOW THE PLAYERS COPED

In all, six players were affected by the situation, according to the Collins family.

The other five are Jon Grandinetti, a sophomore defenseman from Ottawa, Ontario, who transferred to USM; Dallas Ungarian, a goalie who stayed home in Alberta; Dave Walters, who would have been a freshman defenseman at UNE this year, and two players who stayed at UNE and are playing on the hockey team: Scott McManaman, a sophomore forward from Amherst, Nova Scotia; and Adam Laite, a sophomore forward from Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Walters said he received a phone call about the scholarship reduction from UNE just 24 hours before his planned departure to Maine in late August.

“We were stunned,” Walters said. “We didn’t know what to do and couldn’t believe it at first. I didn’t have any time. It was too late to transfer.”

Walters spent the fall semester at UNE as a regular student and transferred in December to Plymouth State in New Hampshire, where he played hockey.

“My family and I are over it now and kind of just putting it in the past just to move on,” said Walters. “I feel bad for Kody and hope he can get things worked out.”

Grandinetti said he transferred immediately to USM, and is commuting 40 minutes to Gorham because he signed a yearlong lease for off-campus housing in Biddeford.

“It still bugs me every now and then,” said Grandinetti. “It’s not right what they did. But I got out quick. I wish it could’ve gone better, but I’m happy being at USM. The whole thing is a big mess. It’s nothing the coach or the team did, but really, the school.”

Laite said he forfeited his summer earnings earmarked for a new car to cover the additional money, and his family took out another small loan. He said he may be forced to graduate a year early because of the expense.

As a team, he said, the loss of three top defensemen and a goalie was difficult.

“It definitely affected our team as far as quality goes,” said Laite. “We lost three of our best defensemen and a starting goalie. And it was hard to swallow losing games when you think guys aren’t putting in the same dedication level and you know the extra things you’ve done to be there.”

McManaman did not respond to a request for an interview.

Collins, Walters and Grandinetti each stressed that UNE hockey coach Brad Holt was as helpful as possible and they hold no ill will toward him or the team. They each also stay in touch with teammates from UNE.

Holt declined to comment.

The hockey program is only in its second year of varsity status. The team played at the club level before being accepted into the ECAC East League two years ago.

The team closed the season last month at 6-19 following a loss to Norwich in the opening round of the ECAC Men’s East League Tournament.

Staff Writer Jenn Menendez can be contacted at 791-6426 or at:

jmenendez@pressherald.com