MYHockey News

Making the Most of Main Camp

Asbury Park Press Photo (Chris Rotolo)


By Scott Lowe -

If you have a kid playing AA or AAA hockey who is over the age of 14, you’ve probably heard the words “main camp” spoken around your house a time or two, especially this time of the year.   

If this is all new to you and you are curious about what those words mean exactly, the more people you ask, the more different answers you’ll get. But, as they say, ‘tis the season, so we’re here to help.

Some people may 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. According to those folks, that may be the only pathway for most kids who hope to play NCAA hockey. People who receive this type of advice should take note of who they are talking to and whether that person may have a vested interest in whatever decisions they make.

That advice is not entirely true as there are Tier 3 junior teams and leagues that send many players on to play at the NCAA Division III level. And these camps are not cheap, so the cost of participating in them can add up quickly. 

Others may tell you that main camps are nothing more than a money grab and a total waste of time. Then there are the people who may say that your kids should attend camps for the experience and to see what it takes to play at whatever the next level for them may be. And still others will tell you that players should only attend camps where they are truly wanted and have a prior 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 definitely is more to them than meets the eye. 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 30-35 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 open rosters spots. 

Tier 1 and Tier 2 junior leagues in the United States are “tuition free,” which means that players do not pay to play for teams at those levels. Since 2017 there have been three tuition-free junior leagues in the United States: The United States Hockey League (USHL, Tier 1), the North American Hockey League (NAHL, Tier 2) and the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC, Tier 2).

In recent weeks, however, the NCDC has added three “pay-to-play” Tier 3 organizations that formerly played in the Tier 3 Eastern Hockey League (EHL). The Worcester Railers, Boston Jr. Rangers and Seacoast Spartans, all based in New England, have joined the league and are charging players tuition. Thus, as currently constructed, the NCDC will have 18 tuition-free and three full-pay teams competing during the 2024-25 season.

As we’ve seen in the volatile world of American junior hockey, however, it’s highly possible that this could change again before the end of the summer.

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). The USPHL is the largest organization of junior teams in the United States. It grows every year and now has more than 70 member organizations located in the United States and also has expanded into Canada. Most USPHL teams compete at the Tier 3 “Premier” or “Elite” levels.

Because the NCDC is not sanctioned by USA Hockey, some hockey people refuse to refer to it as a Tier 2 league. The reality is that to date the level of play has been superior to any Tier 3 league, and pretty much every player in the NCDC moves on to play NCAA Division I or Division III hockey. Player advancement from the NCDC to college is heavily skewed toward NCAA Division III programs.

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 $500 to $900 per month for housing – either in shared apartments or with billet families.

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. 

Some USHL and NAHL teams – as well as teams in the Mountain Division of the NCDC – play in somewhat out-of-the-way locations and are run more like minor league professional franchises. The revenue these teams can generate through tickets sales, sponsorships and other sources assists in covering some operational expenses. Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, many tuition-free programs are funded by ownership money, player fees from lower-level and younger teams within their organization, league financial contributions and camp revenue.

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

Players from all over North America – and sometimes other parts of the world – are invited to attend these camps at a cost of up to $500 for two or three days of hockey. Some quick math shows that a camp with 150 attendees with a cost of $500 to attend generates $75,000. 

Keep in mind that the NAHL and NCDC teams also run “predraft” camps before their annual league entry drafts. These camps initially were intended to provide teams with a final opportunity to evaluate prospects their scouts have seen in person and recommended before compiling their final draft boards. But as with most things in hockey in recent years, it seems like there are more predraft camps and combines with more players “Invited” every year.

The bottom line is that many Tier 2 franchises are probably generating more than $100,000 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 the players who attend main camps and are not drafted or tendered will not make a team or even advance to training camp.

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.

The top priority of these camps is for the organization to determine the 30-35 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 20 or more 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 many camps), that adds up to about 40 players it already has a vested interest in who are going to receive every opportunity to make the team.

If only 30 or 35 players will be invited to training camp and about 40 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 obviously dominant performer, it’s just not happening.

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, correspond with them and invite them to a predraft or main camp.

If a scout is very high on a player, one of the team’s coaches may reach out to the player via phone, and if they think the player is a potential draft pick, they 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.

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 help their teams immediately 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.

More quick math shows that most of the players attending these camps will never play at the Tier 1 or Tier 2 level. Thus, the overall level of play at any given camp is equivalent to Tier 3 juniors or mid-level AAA youth hockey, which provides another reason why players who aren’t absolutely dominant during a camp have little or no chance of getting an invitation to training camp.

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 to end up on a Tier 1 or Tier 2 team’s email list and may receive “invitations” from head or assistant coaches to attend a main camp.

These are mass emails framed as personal invitations to make the players feel wanted. They are not.

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, 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. In general terms, players who bounce from camp to camp randomly all summer are wasting money and time that could be better spent finding a great Tier 3 home that ultimately help them advance to play college hockey.

Players who are on the older side and attend a main camp should reach out to the coaches in advance and let them know they will be attending. They also should get a recommendation from one of their previous coaches or someone who is respected in the hockey world and who may have a prior relationship with someone on the staff.

These players should do whatever they can to get on a team’s radar and receive a fair evaluation instead of being a number on a sheet among 150 players. It’s also beneficial for them to introduce themselves 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 they don’t make the team, making an impression can lead to a call up if players get injured or may persuade a coach to recommend a player to another team in need at the same level.

For younger players who are hoping eventually 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 while providing an opportunity to make an impression for the future. Just like for older players, though, the camp is going to be what these players make of it. They should go out of their way to introduce themselves to the coaches, compete like it’s a playoff game on every shift and try to get legitimate, constructive feedback before they leave.

It's not a good idea to wait a week or two after camp ends before reaching out to a coach. Players should try to speak to someone face to face, thank them and ask them what they need to do to get to that level. It’s important to get their honest assessment while the camp is still fresh in their minds.

After a few days pass and having seen so many kids at camp, coaches are not going to be able to remember the finer details about a player’s game. They also will have a group of 30-35 players who have been invited to training camp to focus on and figure out how those pieces might fit together. That is always going to be the top priority and is another reason players should go out of their way to make sure the coaches know who they are before leaving the camp.

There is a catch to 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 well without realizing that they aren’t even competing against any 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. Of course, for players who pay for a camp, show up and leave without meeting anyone or getting constructive feedback, the camp is going to seem like a money grab.

Upon arriving at a main camp, players can first expect to check in with one of the team’s coaches to get their jerseys and team assignments. Some camps will have fitness testing and team or group skates the first day followed by a few 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 – or multiple all-star games – at the end of camp featuring all the players who will be invited to training camp as well as younger draft picks, tenders and intriguing players who the team will be looking at more seriously in the future and as potential affiliate players.

Exit meetings are fairly common, but don’t always happen. Players should 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. That’s what they always say. Players should try to find out what they need to do specifically to play at that level in the future and focus on those things when they get back on the ice and return to their off-ice training.

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.

Players who spend the money to attend these camps should do everything they can to learn something, grow and make an impression on and off the ice.

Otherwise, they tend to feel like – you guessed it – money grabs.


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