There's Much to Consider When Choosing a New Team
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By Scott Lowe – MYHockeyRankings.com
It’s that time of year again. Already.
That’s right. It's tryout time.
Even though some teams’ seasons may have recently ended and many young players have just completed long and grueling schedules that are 50, 60, 70 or even 80 games in length, many organizations are asking them to get right back on the ice and to prove themselves against other kids looking to take their roster spots.
Of course, as is the case with most youth sports, there often are politics involved when teams are chosen, so some players at every tryout may never really have to prove themselves in that setting, but you get the point. Instead of giving kids a few months to relax, decompress, heal, rejuvenate and perhaps play other sports, we are putting them through the stress of tryouts for a season that won’t start for another five months.
But that’s not what this is about.
We’ve already written extensively in this space about whether tryouts should be pushed back, about how a player not making a particular team isn’t the end of the world and about how players should approach tryouts if they hope to make them less stressful and take something positive away from the experience regardless of the end result.
This is more about what young players and their families should look for and how they should approach selecting a new team in lieu of returning to their former program. A few key concepts to understand and keep in mind are that the grass isn’t always greener somewhere else, playing for a top team isn’t necessarily the best situation for a young player’s development and rushing to a decision because a team is pressuring a family isn’t necessary and could be a major red flag. Tryouts are chaotic and stressful enough already without having someone asking for what may end up being a five-figure financial decision in 48 or 72 hours.
The way hockey tryouts have evolved, many young players can’t even enjoy the last weeks and months of their seasons, because the talk about where kids will play next year often begins as early as January when teams return to the ice after the holidays. Players who should be focusing on finishing up on a high note and continuing to improve, especially as they get older, often begin to feel anxious on the ice and may play differently if they think they are being scouted or want to impress someone on video.
One mistake or bad decision can cost the team a game, a shot at the playoffs, a tournament berth or even a trip to a district or national tournament. More people may be watching, people who potentially hold the keys to a player’s hockey future, and as result players often place more pressure on themselves than usual, fearing that their mistakes may not only cost the team but also could hurt their hockey future.
On top of that, teammates are talking about the coaches and scouts who have offered them contracts or made verbal offers for the following season. Social media is full of posts from players committing to colleges, receiving Tier 1 or Tier 2 junior tender offers or being touted by one of the numerous scouting websites that proliferate the sport these days.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where it is difficult to live in the moment and to fully embrace and enjoy our current journey. FOMO – fear of missing out – is real, and with the emergence of social media in recent years it has permeated society among all age groups and demographics.
As players hear about teammates and friends supposedly getting opportunities and offers when they haven’t had many – or even had any discussions – with higher-level coaches or scouts, the anxiety grows.
As parents, we like to think that we are immune to FOMO and all those external forces that affect our kids, but we are not. We wonder – sometimes to ourselves, sometimes openly to spouses or other parents and sometimes to our children – why other kids are getting opportunities when in our minds our child is just as good or better.
This all adds to the pressure players feel, so while it’s natural for parents to have those concerns, it’s important to internalize them. If a child senses that parents are stressed, he or she is likely to feel that stress. An uptight athlete rarely is capable of playing up to his or her full potential.
This type of family-wide anxiety can lead to a vicious cycle in which a nervous player makes mistakes, gets more worked up than usual after messing up and feels even more pressure on the ice. As the tension increases, mistakes become more prevalent, and everything starts to snowball.
At some point, hockey ceases being fun, and the pursuit of higher levels of play becomes more about ego and accomplishing what others have than finding a pathway to continue enjoying the sport and achieving personal goals. That is a recipe for disappointment and failure.
So, for the sake of everyone’s mental health – and to preserve the joy in playing the game – we’re going to pump the breaks on this whole process a little bit.
Slow down. Take a deep breath. Enjoy the moment.
The process of advancing up the hockey ladder of development and achieving personal long-term goals in the sport – whatever they may be – is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a marathon run on cross-country course with a ton of twists, turns surprises and obstacles.
“Put that goal aside and focus on your current situation,” said Chris Glionna, former longtime head coach of the Suffolk University NCAA Division III team in Boston. “Too many kids get lost because they are looking past their current situation. “One step at a time. Be the best player on whatever team you are on, and you will continue to develop.”
Every player’s path is different.
Pick any players you know who are playing at the NCAA level and search the web for their profiles. More times than not you will see many different stops along their pathways to college hockey.
That kid who went off to play prep hockey when he was 14? He played for three different junior teams after prep school before advancing to college hockey.
The kid who was drafted in the USHL? That’s right, he only lasted a short time there then went off to the BCHL and ended up in the NAHL before committing to an NCAA program.
The player who signed with a Tier 3 junior team as a 17-year-old? That’s right, he played for five teams in two leagues over three seasons before finding a college home.
None of that is unusual. It takes a lot of resilience and perseverance to endure the ups and downs involved in advancing to play NCAA or high-level college club hockey.
The same can be said about a player going through the shorter process of finding a new team for the upcoming season. While the time frame is condensed, it’s still a process that needs to be approached with patience and permitted to play out in its entirety to maximize the chances of making the best-possible decision.
Being one of the first players on a team to sign a contract or commit to a team for the following season may look great on Twitter and allow parents to pridefully puff out their chests at cocktail parties, but rushing to make a quick decision can lead to a player ending up in a bad situation, being miserable and wanting to quit or change teams.
Unless we’re talking about the tuition-free Tier 1 or Tier 2 United States junior levels, a wrong decision can cost thousands of dollars and set a player’s development back. When that happens, players tend to lose confidence and end up back in that vicious cycle of playing to avoid mistakes and just maintain a key role on the team. No one is going to play up to his or her potential or get noticed by scouts with that mindset.
“Players need to be significantly noticeable at their current level if they want to make the jump to a higher level,” said Connor Gorman, head coach at New Hampton School, which competes in the New England Prep Lakes Region League. “I’m not saying they must be a point-per-game, goal-per-game or anything like that, but the player needs to be someone who pops off the ice, someone who, when a prep coach watches a game, he says, ‘That kid can play. He plays hard, thinks the game, has good skill, is a go-to player.’”
Keeping all that in mind, here are some important considerations for any player looking for a new home next year:
Enjoy the Ride
Most kids who fall in love with hockey do so for many reasons, not the least of which is the camaraderie that develops among teammates in the locker room as well as the friendships and bonds that are created along the way and can last a lifetime. There’s no doubt that as young players move up the developmental ladder the sport often sends them conflicting messages.
While hockey might be the team sport that requires the greatest amount of individual sacrifice for the good of the group, as players advance to higher levels they must figure out how to balance the team aspects of hockey with showing scouts what they are capable of doing on the ice. This can be challenging for a young player who has been taught to approach the game a certain way and is the type of player higher-level coaches frequently say they seek – one with character and a high compete level who puts the team first.
The pressure mounts as players approach their age-out years and are looking to commit to a college of their choice. There are times where they may need to put themselves first and make an individual play to show the scouts an aspect of their game that is in question or to ask for a trade in hopes of finding a better situation for them to showcase their talents.
For younger players looking to move to new situations or higher levels, remember that it is a long and winding road. The game gets serious enough fast enough. Players should enjoy playing the game and enjoy the process of working hard and improving. They should enjoy their teammates and all the fun they have together on and off the ice.
This approach is the best way for players to ensure that they will be relaxed and able to perform their best under any circumstances. Very few players ever have failed by competing as hard as possible, being coachable, supporting the rest of the team and having fun.
If hockey has become stressful, it’s important for players to take a step back and remember why they started playing and why they hope to pursue the sport beyond the youth and high-school levels. It’s a game. If it isn’t fun, what’s the point of participating?
“In the long run, if it is meant to be, a college opportunity will open up,” Glionna said, “but enjoy your current situation because it might be the best memories you have.”
A relaxed, enthusiastic player who really competes and approaches the game the right way always will make a positive impression on someone. And sometimes all it takes is one.
Don’t Believe the Hype
It seems that these locker-room conversations in which players brag about getting offers or interest from other higher-level teams start earlier during every season in direct proportion to the increase in competition among youth and junior teams for players who not only can make their teams better, but also whose financial commitment will help pay the bills.
There are a few things to understand about this locker-room chatter.
Most important, most of what you hear in the locker rooms is exaggerated or simply not true. Kids will be kids, and they are going to say things to gain acceptance and feel better about themselves. As a player it is best to realize that there are many insecurities in most locker rooms and not to fall into the FOMO trap. Players should focus on themselves and what they need to do earn the opportunities they seek.
It used to be that USA Hockey member organizations couldn’t make formal contract offers – nor could they hold formal tryouts – until after the conclusion of the National Championships in April. While there always have been programs that tried to work around this rule, at this point it’s not totally clear what the protocols are. There are more teams, leagues, affiliations and exceptions than ever before, and tryouts already have begun for some programs in some parts of the country.
Players ages 14 and up may talk about “being invited” to attend various Tier 1 and Tier 2 junior predraft camps or combines. Most of these organizations send out mass emails to hundreds of kids – most of whom they’ve probably never seen play – inviting them to try out to potentially be drafted or make the team. If one kid on a team receives a camp invite, you can be assured several others did, too. These camps help fund top-tier junior programs, and 99 percent of the players who receive these “invitations” have almost no shot at playing for one of these teams.
Other players may mention getting “offers” from AAA teams or say that they are going to play at prestigious prep schools. Formal offers to play high-level youth hockey in the U.S. are not supposed to be made in January, and prep schools won’t finalize offers until they know who was accepted to enroll at the institution.
Conversations may have taken place. Coaches may have expressed interest in a player and said that they would like that player to play for them the following year. Many coaches cast a wide net to ensure they will have enough quality players at tryouts to form a strong team, but the bottom line is that no matter what a player is told or what a player is promised, if that player attends tryouts and isn’t good enough in the coaches’ minds, the player will not make the team or be considered for a spot high in the lineup.
“If a coach promises you a certain amount of ice or a spot on first line, that is a red flag,” said Bryan Erikson, head coach and president of hockey operations for the Northeast Generals, a Tier 2 junior team in the North American Hockey League. “Promises need to be earned. I wouldn't want to go to a place where the first line is promised. I would want to go to a place where you get to compete for a spot day in and day out.”
Until there is a signed contract, nothing is guaranteed, and even in pay-to-play Tier 3 junior hockey, a signed contract doesn’t mean that a player will automatically make the final roster or be in the lineup on a regular basis.
As far as prep schools go, most application deadlines passed long ago, so players and coaches may not even know who will be accepted yet. If a player truly is being recruited by a prep school hockey program, the coach would have told him or her that either there is a spot available on the varsity, that the player will be competing for a varsity spot or that the player will be spending some time on the junior varsity or second varsity to develop.
If these conversations haven’t taken place, the player merely is hoping to attend the school and make one of the teams. Again, until admissions decisions are finalized and tryouts have been held the following fall, nothing is guaranteed.
“Time and time again I have players reach out to me who truly have no business playing prep school hockey,” Gorman said, “but they see their friends leaving for prep so they feel they should be as well. A player should be looking for a place where there is opportunity.”
So don’t believe the hype.
Maintain the focus previously discussed here. The players who tune out the noise and concentrate on improving, playing the right way and doing everything that is asked of them are the ones who are most likely to advance.
Take the Time to Examine All Options
This is a big one.
It’s great to feel wanted, and players ultimately should go to where they truly are wanted. With so many good – and high-pressure – sales people in the youth and junior hockey world, thoughr, It may be hard to figure out when a coach is sincere about his or her recruiting pitch
It may seem like a great idea for a player to sign with a team as quickly as possible, take the pressure off and know that he or she will have a place to play next year. And of course, it is a good feeling to be able to tell the world about signing a contract or verbally committing to play for a respected program. We all have egos and receiving attention or recognition of any type always boosts are confidence and self-esteem.
But players should be careful they accept the first offer they receive. While it is flattering to have a coach hand or email a player a contract the first day he or she is permitted to do so or to get an offer from a team after they’ve seen the player practice or play only a few times, it also can be a major red flag.
“Don’t pick a team or school because of the bumper sticker you can put on your car that will get the ooohs and ahhs,” Gorman said.
As mentioned previously, players should strive to go where they are wanted, and a team reaching out to offer a contract early in the process would make anyone feel wanted. But it’s important to determine what the team’s real end-goal might be. Is the player the priority or is getting the guaranteed money in return for the possibility that the player might pan out and be a productive member of the team the driving force behind the quick offer.
Running elite youth and junior hockey programs is expensive. The cost of insurance, ice time, coaches, travel, equipment and league fees is considerable, and the quality of play or quality of players recruited frequently takes a back seat to generating revenue.
Players at the Tier 3 junior level are generally charged between $8,000 and $12,000 to play, so coaches, GMs and scouts are under pressure from team ownership to bring in enough full-paying customers to ensure that the team will be able to operate. Many programs have two teams, with the second team existing as much to generate more revenue as to win hockey games.
More than a few junior teams will hand out more contracts than they have spots available, collect as much up-front money as they can and sort it all out later. While it’s true that some Tier 3 junior teams are driven more by winning than money, at the end of the day it is a business, and the goal always will be to turn at least a small profit.
There may be a similar approach at the AA and AAA levels, depending on the location of the team and the level of success the program traditionally enjoys. Some programs will offer contracts or hold tryouts as soon as they are permitted and give players 24 or 48 hours to decide if they will sign. There also are teams that will make players sign a contract agreeing to play for them if they ultimately make the team before they are allowed to step on the ice for the final evaluation session.
Higher-ranked programs realize that there is enough demand for them to fill all their open spots, have a strong team and generate the revenue necessary to operate. Those teams will target the players they want most, send them a contract and ask them to decide in a day or two. They will always have backup lists of strong players in case their first choices turn them down. These teams actively scout and do the appropriate due diligence. There’s a reason they are very good.
Other programs just hope to be competitive and fill their open slots, so they will offer contracts as soon as they can in hopes of beating their competition to the punch and stealing some players who might potentially play for other teams. Many of these organizations will offer more contracts than they have available roster spots to account for attrition while also keeping the option open to have a second team at an age group if too many players sign with them.
Many of these deadlines are simply intended to force a naive family’s hand and get them to commit and pay a deposit. The best way to find out how much a team really wants a player is for the player to let the coach know that he or she is flattered by the offer and very interested in playing for that team but also wants to see what his or her other options are.
If a program really wants a player and feels that he or she will be a key member of the team, no coach will have an issue giving the player all the time necessary to make an informed decision. If a team tells the player that the deadline is absolute, it’s probably not a program worth playing for anyway. The funny thing about those programs is that they frequently struggle to fill their rosters and come back to the players they shut out later in the process to see if they still might be interested.
If a player has not played for a coach or team previously, making a snap decision and accepting an offer hastily can turn out to be problematic. Unless the player has had the ability to talk to the coach many times during the recruitment process to get a good feel for the coach’s personality, to understand the coach’s preferred style of play and to develop a level of comfort with that coach and the overall situation, signing a contract right away can be a huge risk.
Even the best players don’t mesh with all coaches, which can lead to a lesser role than the player expected, and the more marginal players might find themselves at the bottom of the lineup and unhappy because they get limited playing time and are playing for a coach who isn’t a good fit for them in terms of personality or style of play.
Remember that this is a process that shouldn’t be rushed. This year’s decision might affect a player’s development and future opportunities. Don’t just automatically jump to sign the first offer. Players should get to know all the coaches who are interested in them, weigh their options and make the best choice for them and their families.
Go Where You’re Wanted but Don’t Drink the Alphabet Soup
This seems so simple, because if a player gets a contract offer that must mean that the team really wants him or her, right? As was outlined above, that is not always the case.
“How bad does that coach really want your son or daughter?” Glionna said. “If he us pushing you off seemingly waiting to see what else is out there, then I would move on. Play for a coach that wants your child to be part of the program. Do not force your child into a situation that isn't obvious because you will usually regret it.”
While some might argue that it’s not easy for players to tell how much a coach who they don’t know well wants them, the reality is that coaches who really want players to be a part of their programs will go out of their way to make it clear to those players how much they are coveted.
Coaches who make a point to see a player play and talk to him or her after the game or otherwise let the player know that they were there, who reach out at least occasionally to see how the player’s season is going and who are willing to take the time to thoroughly answer any questions the player might have are providing all the evidence a player needs to know they are serious about having him or her join their team.
Players should appreciate the relationship-building efforts put forth by these coaches, because for both sides the only way to really know if a situation is right for a player is by getting to know each other. It’s likely that the relationship will evolve over the time, and the player may be invited to practice with the team, meet the staff and tour the team’s facilities.
These are invaluable opportunities for players not only to gather all the information they need to make the best decision, but also to acquire experience and develop confidence talking to coaches one on one. Talking to adult authority figures and getting comfortable asking questions in that type of setting is difficult for many young athletes, so the more they do it, the easier it gets. This experience will serve them well going forward on and off the ice.
It’s imperative that players to take advantage of these opportunities to learn as much possible about the coaches, the organization, the housing situation, the player-development plan, the off-ice training program, their access to the facilities, the academic opportunities and requirements, any potential employment opportunities – as well as any other relevant topics or issues. Any coach who really wants a player to be part of his or her team will be happy to take the time to answer any questions a recruit asks thoroughly.
“The quality of a coach and his or her track record for moving players to the next level is huge since that’s the player’s ultimate goal,” said Sean Walsh, head coach at NCAA Division II Southern New Hampshire University.
Players should beware of coaches who tell them what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. Any coach who wants to fill a roster and get players to commit easily can tell a player that he or she will be in a top-six role and play in all situations just to get them to commit. But no coaches are going to put players who they don’t feel are capable into those types of roles when the time comes to make final roster or lineup decisions.
No matter what players are told or promised, they must be good enough to satisfy the coach when the time comes to perform. While every player hopes to be told that he or she is going to be at the top of the lineup, a coach who takes the time to break a player’s game down and point out the areas of strength, the areas that need improvement and how the player fits into the coach’s preferred style of play generally have the player’s best interests at heart and will work closely with the player to ensure he or she continues to develop and makes strides toward reaching his or her goals.
“This is a huge factor, and style of play isn’t as important as the quality of the coach,” Erikson said. “Adjusting to systems will always be a part of the game, and a player should never just play in one type of system. But playing for a coach who understands the game, knows how to communicate and genuinely cares about his or her players to me is the biggest aspect to selecting a team.”
If a coach hands or emails a player a contract after just seeing him or her play or skate a few times, the player should respond enthusiastically and ask the coach if he or she would be willing to sit down and have a conversation to begin the process of building a relationship and determining whether that program would be a good fit.
“Building a relationship with the coach is huge,” Gorman said. “If a player feels like they can connect with the coach on and off the ice, that player is most likely going to have more success. The one line I use to every recruit I bring on campus is if they come to school with the mindset of ‘expect nothing to receive everything,’ then they will have success.”
Part of finding a program where a player really is wanted is locating a team that competes at a high enough level for the player to be challenged while also providing him or her with plenty of playing time and an opportunity to play in many situations. This is where we warn players and families not to drink the “alphabet soup.”
Too many young players get caught up in the letters of the alphabet – AA, AAA, USPHL, NCDC, NAHL, USHL, EHL, NA3HL, Tier 1 EHL, HPHL, etc. This is where ego and FOMO come into play and can lead to bad decisions
While at some point scouts may want to see players compete at the highest level they can to show how they stack up against the very best competition, throughout the developmental process it is important for players to have the opportunity to play as much as possible and experience as many different game situations as they can. This is how skill and hockey IQ are developed and how confidence is built.
“Opportunity is the most important thing in development,” Glionna said. “I always tell people if you are not a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman on your current team then your development might be hurt. You want to be in a situation where you can make mistakes and try things outside your comfort zone. If you are fighting for playing time, that is hard to do. It takes time to get comfortable with the puck, playing in traffic, being efficient off the rush, learning soft spots in the offensive zone and so on. This can't be learned playing five minutes a night.”
Of course, it feels great to wear a AAA team’s gear to school and for parents to be able to tell friends that their kid plays on the best team in the area or one of the nation’s top-ranked teams. But at what cost? Certainly practicing several days a week against top players is a great way to improve, but hockey history is filled with stories of great practice players who never panned out.
“No one wants to play on a bad team, but if it gives a player the opportunity to play a lot, that is better than sitting in the stands on a championship team,” Glionna said. “The reality is you only have so many years to play hockey, so you want to play as much as you can.”
To continue progressing in the sport, players must be exposed to as many situations as possible in a competitive environment. The letters in front or after a team’s name aren’t nearly as important as the opportunity to play as much as possible – as long as the level of competition is challenging and the coaching is good.
Young players who are counted on by their coaches and receive a lot of playing time also are more likely to enjoy their experience than those who are working as hard as they can in practice only to receive fourth-line minutes, limited special-teams time and little or no ice time late in close games. They also are more likely to develop the type of leadership skills higher-level coaches covet.
Players who develop a love for the sport are going to be more willing to continue putting in the extra time and effort necessary to get better and continue progressing up the developmental ladder. Meanwhile, those who have worked so hard through the years and haven’t been rewarded by their coaches are more likely to give up on the sport before long before they achieve their goals.
Do Your Homework
This also seems obvious, but far too many players are swayed by the need for instant gratification and recognition. They pick a team they think they want to play for without really knowing anything about the program other than the level it plays at and the success it has had. When that team makes an offer they jump at it without doing their homework.
The importance of getting to know a coach and playing somewhere that you are really wanted already has been emphasized, so in addition to building a relationship with a potential coach, some further investigation is recommended.
“I think the coach as a person is the most important thing,” Glionna said. “X’s and O’s are important, but if your child is not going to enjoy his time with the coach, he is not in an environment to develop.”
Added Gorman: “To me, this is the most important consideration. You have to play for a coach who believes in you as a player, pushes you on and off the ice and truly cares. The truly cares part is what matters most. Does your coach plan a good practice? Does he check your grades every few weeks? Does he check in about how you’re doing personally? That stuff matters to me and is why I make it a part of our program.”
In addition to building a relationship with any potential coach, it is important for players to watch the coach’s teams play to make sure the style of play is a good fit and to talk to players on his or her team. Hockey is a small world, so it’s likely that a player knows someone who has played for a coach in the past or at least knows someone who knows someone who played for that coach. It’s a good idea to reach out to those players to find out about their experience playing in that program for that person.
Remember that part of a coach’s job is to sell a player on his or her program, so while a player may like a coach and have built a good relationship with him or her, it’s advisable to get more than the coach’s side of the story when making a final decision.
Other aspects for players to consider include the overall quality of the organization, the team’s immediate needs for the upcoming season, the location, the housing options, the facilities and access to ice time, the academic options and the cost.
When it comes to the overall quality of the organization, this is another good reason to talk to former or current players. The team doesn’t have to be nationally ranked or even a top team in its league, but players should be looking for programs that are competitive at their level and who move a consistent number of players on to higher levels annually.
Another important consideration is the makeup of the current roster and how many players are returning overall and at each position the following season.
“I call this the numbers game,” Gorman said. “If a team is only losing two forwards, then that may not be the best place for a forward, but if a team is losing eight forwards, then that could be a better spot.”
Looking to see how many players a junior team uses during a given season and finding out if a prep school team carries a number of extra players is important, too, as it can be an indication of loyalty, patience and if there are an unusual number of regularly scratched players.
This information generally can be found online by searching for a team’s roster, however the available roster might not paint a complete picture. Players shouldn’t hesitate to ask the coach how many players are coming back at their position and where they coach sees him or her fitting into the lineup.
“It’s very important to find a level that at which you can develop and be successful,” said Vinnie Montalbano, general manager of the Tier 2 NCDC Connecticut Jr. Rangers and a scout for the Vancouver Canucks. “Being a healthy scratch every weekend on the top junior level does not help you. If a team has a lot of players on the roster, ask the coach or GM why. Sometimes teams have affiliate players who they call up, but other teams trade players and bring new players in constantly.”
With today’s advanced technology that allows so many games to be viewed live or on-demand via webstream – and with so many teams routinely traveling to traditional hockey hotbeds to play – a team’s location isn’t as important as it once was. Not many years ago it was widely thought that young players in non-traditional hockey markets who wanted to play NCAA hockey needed to leave home to play in more traditional hockey areas, but that is not necessarily the case anymore.
“The closer you play to us, the easier it is for us to see, evaluate, watch and talk to you in person,” Walsh said. “As far as leaving home, though, I think it’s a player-to-player situation. If you are in a good situation with a good coach, a good schedule and can stay at your own school and sleep in your own bed, that’s tough to leave. There are some kids who want to go to prep school for the education, which makes sense. Other kids seek exposure and worry about a lack of development. They may be completely dominating where they are and looking to leave. Every situation is different.”
Added Erikson: “Leaving home to play hockey is a family decision. A player should never be talked into leaving home before he or she is ready. Social maturity is much more important than hockey maturity. The conversation with the program should be about how you can grow as a person and what they will do if you are homesick or struggling with school. Those factors are huge and have a big impact on how you are able to perform as a hockey player.”
Housing options should be a factor in any decision made by players who will be leaving home to play. A bad housing situation can make an otherwise good hockey experience nearly unbearable. Not all programs have established relationships with consistent billet families, some programs offer less-than-ideal and poorly supervised group-housing options and others offer more of a dormitory-style setup.
Players should ask the coach about the living accommodations, talk to players on the team about their experiences, ask to meet a current billet host family and/or ask for a tour of whatever housing options the team provides. This should not be taken lightly or overlooked. If the player can’t get the answers he or she seeks, parents have every right to ask.
While it may not be a deciding factor, finding a team that has state-of-the-art facilities and/or access to plentiful ice time may be attractive to a player and can separate one program from another – as can access to a quality off-ice training staff and off-ice workout facilities. More ice time provides more opportunity for skill and skating development, while off-ice training often is what separates players who reach the highest levels from those who don’t.
The final, but possibly the most important, consideration for players who are considering moving away to play for a new team is the academic component. This is most important for younger players who are still in high school or middle school, but junior players who have graduated also should be looking to take online or in-person classes to get a head-start on college and maintain the routine of being in school.
Many parents do not want their children finishing their pre-college schooling online, although the quality and quantity of available online programs has improved in recent years. Some youth hockey programs aren’t compatible with players who want to attend bricks-and-mortar schools, while other academy-style programs have relationships with local public or private schools that their out-of-town players can attend.
For those programs that require online schooling, many do provide classroom settings where their players can study; provide academic counselors, advisors and tutors; and set aside blocks of time for studying that players are required to utilize.
Since strong academics are essential for young athletes to attend the colleges that most interest them and are necessary to prepare kids for life after hockey, players and parents should only consider programs that place a priority on education and will help position the players to have as many college options as possible.
Determining when the time is right to take on a new hockey challenge and what program to play for never will be an exact science, but by weighing as many options as possible and taking the time to perform adequate due diligence, families can greatly improve the likelihood of making the right decision.
“I think whenever you are able to dominate whatever level you are at, then it is time to move on and find a new challenge,” Montalbano said. “Just realize that you might go from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond, especially when moving up a level. How you handle adversity and develop will tell a lot about who you are as a person.”