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Heading to a Main Camp? Here's What You Need to Know

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 By Scott Lowe -

Parents of hockey players entering their teen years start to hear rumblings about junior hockey tryout camps known as “main camps” about this time every year. If your kids are serious about hockey and the possibility of advancing in the sport and continuing to play beyond 18U and high school, there’s a pretty good chance that they’ve tried to convince you to let them attend one of these.

And there’s also a pretty good chance that you’ve caved in at some point whether you like it or not and without really understanding what these camps are all about. Unfortunately, the more people you ask about them, the more different answers you are likely to get. 

Some people will tell you that kids should do as many main camps as possible to get the exposure they need to play Tier 1 or Tier 2 juniors, which is the only way that they will play NCAA hockey. That, of course, is not entirely true as there are strong Tier 3 junior teams and leagues that send many players on to play at the NCAA Division III level.

And while it’s easy for someone to say that a player should do as many camps as possible, they are not cheap. The cost of doing many camps, with travel and lodging often thrown in, adds up quickly, so it’s important to make the most of these experiences.

Other folks will tell you that main camps are nothing more than a money grab and a total waste of time. Some will tell you that your kids should attend camps for the experience and to see what it takes to play at the next level. And still others will tell you to only attend camps where you are truly wanted and have a relationship with the coaching staff.

As usual, the real answer lies somewhere in the middle of all that and is highly dependent on a player’s age, ability and goals.

Let’s take a step back first. What exactly is a main camp?

In a broad sense, main camps are tryout camps for Tier 1 and Tier 2 junior teams, but there’s really much more to them than that. Main camps are where Tier 1 and Tier 2 junior teams bring their returning protected players, their draft picks and their tenders to skate and play for three or four days so they can determine which 30 kids will be invited to training camp. 

Main camps also have another purpose, which is to help fund team operations. In addition to the groups of players mentioned above, teams will “invite” players, who in theory they have seen or scouted, to attend and supposedly “try out” for the team. 

Tier 1 and Tier 2 junior leagues are “tuition free,” which means that players do not pay to play for teams at those levels. There are three tuition-free junior leagues in the United States: The Tier 1 United States Hockey League, the Tier 2 North American Hockey League (NAHL) and the Tier 2 National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC).

The USHL and NAHL are the only USA Hockey-sanctioned tuition-free leagues in the U.S., with the NCDC being overseen and run by the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL). It is considered Tier 2 by most people in hockey because it is a tuition-free league that provides a higher level of play than the Tier 3 leagues. The USPHL is the largest organization of American junior teams, with more than 60 member clubs located literally all over the country. This year the NCDC is adding a Western Division and expanding to 18 teams.

Players in the Tier 1 USHL have no expenses. They don’t pay tuition, and their housing is taken care of by the team as well. NAHL and NCDC players do not pay tuition, but usually pay $400 to $500 per month for housing – either in shared apartments or with billet families. All three leagues send players on to play NCAA hockey.

The 16-team USHL is made up of high-level Division I and professional prospects. The NAHL is comprised of 32 teams and annually sends more than 300 players on to play NCAA hockey, with about ¾ of those players receiving Division I offers. Pretty much every NCDC player who hopes to play NCAA hockey will get that opportunity, mostly at the Division III level, but the league usually commits a handful of players to Division I programs each year and there are often between 35 and 40 players who are already committed to D1 schools playing in the league.   

Running a tuition-free program is extremely expensive when you factor in costs such as ice time, travel, lodging, food for road trips, insurance, uniforms, equipment and staff salaries. While some USHL and NAHL teams play in out-of-the-way locations and are run more like minor league professional franchises – with strong revenue streams generated by tickets sales and sponsorships – many tuition-free programs are funded by ownership money, player fees from lower-level and younger teams within their organization, league contributions and camp revenue.

Because of this you, will see anywhere from 120 to 200 paying customers at many USHL and NAHL main camps. NCDC camps tend to be a little smaller, with numbers often in the 80-120 range.

Players from all over North America – and sometimes other areas of the world – attend these camps at prices that usually range from $250-$350 (or more). Some quick math shows that a camp of 150 that costs $250 to attend generates $37,500 in revenue.

Keep in mind that the NAHL and NCDC teams also run “predraft” camps before their annual league entry drafts. For these camps they try to bring in players recommended by their scouts or who they have been told about and want to see in person as well as other players willing to pay for the opportunity to be considered for that league’s draft.

So, the bottom line is that many Tier 2 franchises are probably generating $100,000 or even more from their various tryout camps.

Most people wouldn’t have a problem with this if the camps provided a true open tryout opportunity. The reality is that there is a lot more that goes into making a team at the Tier 1 or Tier 2 level than attending a tryout camp. While it does occasionally happen, probably 99 percent of players who attend main camps and are not drafted or tendered will not make a team.

That’s why many people call these camps money grabs, and depending on how you approach and view them, they certainly can be just that.

Of course, the top priority at these camps is for the organization to select the 30 best players to invite to training camp in hopes of fielding the best possible team for the upcoming season. Doing some more quick math, if each team has returning protected players from the previous season, 10 or more draft picks and eight or so tenders at camp (there may be more draft picks and tenders at some camps), that can add up to nearly 40 players it has a vested interest in who are going to receive every opportunity to make the team.

Keep in mind that draft picks and tenders from previous years who the team may have been developing and tracking or who remained part of the organization as affiliate players can cause the number of players a team is seriously considering to grow even higher, and many of those players will be competing for the few spots that the team considers as being open based on the number of returners.

If only 30 players will be invited to training camp and 40 or more already are a priority for the organization, the odds of someone just walking in off the street for main camp and even getting an invite to training camp are slim at best. It does happen, but if you are not the best player on your team at camp or an otherwise dominant performer throughout the evaluation process, it’s just not in the cards.

It’s accurate to think that organizations want to put together a highly competitive camp that  tests their returning players and new recruits – and possibly produces a few under-the-radar prospects and younger players who might be worth a draft pick or tender in the future – but you can be sure that priority No. 2 after picking the best team possible is filling the camp with paying customers.

Tier 1 and 2 junior teams have scouts all over the country. Those scouts are looking for top talent who they think can compete successfully as Tier 1 or 2 players, future talent who might be worth a draft pick or be able to make the team down the road and good players who can make the tryout camps competitive. These scouts will talk to players they like during the course of a season, correspond with them directly and invite them to a predraft or main camp.

If a scout is very high on a player, one of the team’s coaches usually will reach out to the player via phone, and if they think the player is a potential draft pick they likely will invite him to a predraft camp so they can see him play in person and determine if he is someone they want to draft or possibly tender.

When a team really likes a player, it may offer him a tender. Tier 1 and 2 teams get a limited number of tenders each year that they can offer to players. Players who sign tenders are property of that team in that specific league until cut or released, but still can pursue opportunities with different teams in other leagues. Because teams have a limited number of draft picks and tenders, they are going to use those only on top players who they think have a realistic chance to make their teams right now or in the future.

Scouts often get paid a commission for getting players to attend tryout camps, so they also are going to invite other quality players to make sure the level of play is high, the camp is full and they get paid. Some of these players may be younger and possibly could pan out in the future, and some of them are just strong players who will make the camp better but have no realistic shot of making the team. 

In addition, any players who have attended league combines, played in a AAA league, attended a USA Hockey district tryout, played in certain showcases or participated in any elite hockey program that required an email address to register are likely going to end up on a Tier 1 or Tier 2 team’s email list and may receive email “invitations” from head coaches or assistants to attend main camp.

These are mass emails framed as personal invitations to make the players feel wanted. The vast majority of the time these are not personal invitations. Remember that priority No. 2 is filling the camp and generating revenue to fund the program. If you haven’t spoken to a coach in person, on the phone or via text – or are not invited to have a conversation in the email – it is not a personal invitation, and you are probably not going to have any kind of realistic chance of making the team.

For older players who are 18 or 19, going to a main camp without being drafted, tendered or having been contacted directly by a coach is probably a waste of time and money. If a player wants to give it one last shot to make it at that level and knows that a specific team has a need at his position, there’s nothing wrong with giving it a go. But for these players, bouncing from camp to camp randomly is a poor use of money and time that could be better spent finding a great Tier 3 home that can help move the player on to NCAA hockey.

If you are on the older side and attend a main camp, make sure to reach out to the coaches and let them know you are coming and try to get a recommendation from one of your previous coaches. Do whatever you can to get on their radar and receive a fair evaluation instead of being just one of 150 players. Introduce yourself to the coaches upon arrival, be prepared to compete every second of every shift and ask for an honest assessment while thanking the staff on the way out.

Even if you don’t make the team, making an impression can lead to a call up if players get injured or persuade a coach to recommend you to another team with needs at that level.

For younger players who are hoping to play junior and NCAA hockey, going to Tier 1 and 2 tryout camps at age 16 or 17 can provide invaluable experience as far as understanding what it takes to play higher-end junior hockey and provide an opportunity to make an impression for the future. That said, USHL teams will be drafting 2008 birth years next spring, so their scouts have already been scouring the country for the most talented players in that age group who they think might one day be able to play at that level.

Just like for older players, though, the camp is going to be what a players makes of it. Make sure to introduce yourself to the coaches, compete like you’ve never competed and get real, constructive feedback before you leave, 

Don’t wait to email the coaches at a later date. Go out of your way to speak to someone face to face before you leave, thank them and ask them what you need to do to get to their level.

They may ask you to wait a few days and send a text or email to follow up. That’s fine of course, but taking the time to speak to someone in person before you leave and following up will make a positive impression. You want to get their honest assessment while your performance is still fresh in their minds. After a few days go by and having seen so many kids at camp, coaches are not going to be able to remember the fine details about your game. This is another reason to introduce yourself and go out of your way to make sure they know who you are.

There is a catch to all of this, however.

At larger camps, the veterans, draft picks and tenders may not come in until after the first day or two. Many players go to camps and do really well without realizing that they aren’t competing against Tier 1 or Tier 2 players and think that they deserve to be at that level. 

Then they don’t get invited to stay for the final games or the all-star games and leave angry and feeling that they are legitimately Tier 1 or Tier 2 players. If you just pay for a camp, show up and play then leave without meeting anyone or getting constructive feedback, of course the camp is going to seem like a money grab.

When you get to main camp you can first expect to check in with one of the team’s coaches to get your jersey and team assignment. Some camps will have fitness testing and team or group skates the first day and then you can expect to play three or four games before the group is cut down into fewer teams of players who are more likely to make the team or be considered in the future.

Often there is an all-star game at the end of camp featuring all the players who will be invited to training camp as well as younger draft picks and tenders who the team will be looking at more seriously in the future and as affiliate players. Sometimes there is a separate all-star or “Young Guns” game for those players. This can be a great first step for a player looking to get on a team’s radar for the future, so players who earn these opportunities should make sure to thank the coaches on the way out and send a follow-up thank-you note expressing interest in returning and competing for a spot on the team in the future. 

Exit meetings are common, but don’t always happen. It’s nearly impossible for a coaching staff to take the time to have a meaningful conversation with more than 100 players in the chaos that usually follows a camp. Most organizations will make sure that someone speaks to players they are legitimately interested in for that year or in the future before they head home, however. 

If you aren’t sure whether there will be an exit interview, try to schedule one and ask specific questions. Don’t settle for “you need to get stronger and faster,” as a critique of your game. Those are standard comments that most players hear. Find out what you need to do specifically to play at that level in the future and focus on those things when you get back on the ice and do your off-ice training. Again, if they don’t have time to talk while you’re there, try to schedule a time to follow up with them later that same week. 

In hockey, as with anything in life, it is imperative that young players learn and grow from every experience. Much like high school or college, main camps are what each individual player makes of them.

If you’re going to attend one, don’t be shy. Go out of your way to make an impression on and off the ice.

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