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Split Season Often Leads to Split Opinions

By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com

mnhockeyhub.com photo

When it comes youth hockey, there are very few concrete answers to the most frequently asked questions. Pretty much any question can be answered with some iteration of this statement: “It depends on the individual player’s situation.” 

For the most part, the same can be said when it comes to the debate about split-season hockey opportunities for players in the 15-18U age groups. In some areas of the country, the split-season option is the only real alternative for players who play both club and high school hockey. But in other areas, for kids who hope to ascend to the junior and NCAA levels of play, split season may not be the best choice – or it might not be an option at all.

“For kids who play high-end high school and prep school hockey in New England, split-season hockey has become the best way for them to get game-speed reps going into their winter season,” said Russell Sherman, split-season director for the Northeast Generals program. “It also is an excellent way to augment and develop exposure for some players.”

The good news is that more club and high school programs than ever seem to be open to working together when it comes to scheduling. Whether it’s AAA and AA club programs cutting back on the number of games played and practices when the high school season starts or coaches on both sides communicating better to eliminate as many potential conflicts as possible, this helps prevent players from having to decide which team is more important to them, which game or practice is more beneficial or which coach will be less angry as a result of the decision made.

But in areas where high school hockey is not traditionally as strong as it is in locations that have embraced the split-season approach such as New England, Minnesota, New York, Michigan and Wisconsin, high-level club coaches often have strict rules about how conflicts should be handled. The top high school programs in those areas also may have similar rules. That leaves a young player in the precarious situation of having to make a choice – and more times than not kids are going to take the path of least resistance instead of choosing what they prefer or what may be best for their hockey future.

It’s in these areas that the debate rages and can get contentious. What is the right answer? Should the split-season concept be embraced everywhere that there is club and high school hockey? Unfortunately, making a blanket statement is impossible

Before we enter the debate, though, let’s take a look at the thought process behind split-season club hockey. Split-season teams were created to give teenage hockey players the opportunity to play for club teams and high school teams without worrying about overdoing it physically or having to deal with endless scheduling conflicts.

Split teams usually assemble in August and compete in games and tournaments between late August and early November. Some teams just play games, while others train, practice and play. But once the high school season starts, they go dormant, with some competing in USA Hockey district and national championship tournaments after school hockey ends.

This conversation about split-season vs. full-season club hockey becomes more complicated in less-traditional hockey markets where, for the most part, young players with high-level junior and college aspirations feel the need to play on full-season AAA teams to compete at a level that will help them develop and get the exposure they need to advance. Many junior and college scouts would agree with this.

No matter how you slice it, if a AAA team plays 50-plus games with two or three practices a week and multiple showcases that might include games on Thursdays, Friday or Mondays, there are going to be unavoidable conflicts. This is especially true if a player also is on a higher-end school team, which might play more than 30 games. The level of play for that team might be very good, but not at the AAA level, so in terms of hockey development the best decision in theory would always favor the AAA program.

Unfortunately, the decision is not always that easy for the player to make.

Every young athlete loves representing his or her school and playing in front of friends and family. What if it’s a big rivalry game? What if the game is for the league championship? What if it’s just a AAA practice vs. an important school game? Choosing the game should be okay, right? Not always. Many AAA coaches – and to be fair, some of the top AA and high school coaches – will penalize kids for choosing one over the other. Others may prohibit it entirely.

There are other issues that arise in the less-traditional markets, too, such as having so many teams competing for open ice slots during the high school season, with school teams often being lower on the priority list and having to practice or play games very late at night or very early in the morning. This turns off some kids to the idea of playing school hockey at all.

So while in places like Minnesota – where 18,000 fans pack an arena to watch the best players compete for a state high school title every year – and New England, where more kids than not grow up playing hockey and dream of playing at a prep school or representing their hometown school on the ice, the split-season model is welcome and necessary.

Still, even in these areas, it can be challenging for coaches to put split-season teams together and for players to compete on these teams. It may be impossible for a kid from another part of the country who is attending prep school in Connecticut, for example, to play on a split-season team if most of the games are in the Boston area and no transportation is available.

“Finding a split-season team that is located outside your normal area has its challenges,” said Bill Hartman, a resident of northern Maryland whose son Jace attends Avon Old Farms and plays split season with the Connecticut Chiefs. “You’re not always familiar with the ins and outs of each organization, which can test your trust and patience. You also have to consider the cost of tryouts and make sure the timing of everything makes it feasible with the school schedule. We went with a team that had local practices we knew he could get to, but with none of his friends playing we have to travel many weekends to get him to the games and find hotels to stay in.”

Added Sherman: “It is very difficult to manage, especially at the younger ages, because of the prep school responsibilities and prep school fall sports many kids are required to play. It can be difficult to have a consistent roster. But if you can manage it can be really great, especially if you have a great league that creates exposure like the Beast or USPHL, where top programs will get several college and prep commitments during the fall.”   

This also is true in places such as Wisconsin, parts of upstate New York and scattered other locales mostly in the Midwest. And in other areas, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Michigan, the split-season or “short-season” concept has been embraced at the AA level and below to give players who love hockey and hope to continue to develop and grow as players an opportunity to play more games against relatively strong competition.

Most Pennsylvania and New Jersey AAA teams also seem to cut back on their games and travel a little bit during the months of December and January to at least limit potential conflicts and hopefully to look out for the well-being of their players. Among the concerns for kids playing both AAA and high school hockey are mental burnout and overuse injuries. There are cases where some kids are playing more than 90 games between their two teams and may be on the ice six or seven – or even more – times per week.

High school hockey is popular in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but the overall level of play more often than not is below what the better AA programs compete against and well below the AAA level. In fact, even in New England public school hockey is not the same level as what the AAA players see regularly. The New England Prep schools, on the other hand, feature some of the best prospects in the nation and play at a very high level in front of a lot of college and junior scouts. 

Hockey is a way of life for so many in New England. The better public school players who want to play collegiately are looking to play more hockey and higher-level hockey than what the school leagues offer. Junior and college scouts also prefer to see those players competing against better players. But it also is extremely important to those kids to be able to play with their buddies representing their towns and schools.

New England prep players get to play against some of the best competition in the country, but their schedules usually consist of only 25-30 games. Some of the prep schools don’t even put their ice down until October. So for those kids, most of whom have NCAA hockey aspirations, playing for AAA club teams in front of scouts in four or five showcase events before their school seasons start makes sense. Those events are in September and October, a time when most college hockey scouts are available to see games – and they are played in locations that are within easy driving distance of more than 50 NCAA hockey colleges.

Hockey is the most popular high school sport in the state of Minnesota, with more than 6,500 players and 250 schools participating. As many as 135,000 spectators have flocked to Minnesota state playoff games in one season, and the Minnesota state hockey tournament often is the most-attended and viewed state high school championship in the country – surpassing even the Indiana basketball and Florida football tournaments.

Even with the popularity and high level of high school hockey in a state such as Minnesota, the regular season is limited to 25 games. Minnesota is a hotbed of hockey with a ton of NCAA prospects, so clearly many players there are looking to play more high-level games in front of scouts before and after their school seasons.

So as we look at the national debate over split-season hockey, there are some absolutes. In some states and regions where more kids play hockey, the level of high school play is high and a high percentage of NCAA hockey prospects are produced, but those players crave more high-level games and want to be seen by scouts as often as possible. it is a necessary evil. 

Other areas where high school hockey is popular – like upstate New York and parts of Ohio and Illinois – but still not quite at a level where it helps young players who dream of playing high-level junior or college hockey develop, are offering players opportunities to play full or split seasons at the AAA level and allowing them to make the choice. Team Ohio is a traditional nationally competitive AA program that plays as many as 40 games before high school season starts and often qualifies for USA Hockey Tier 2 Nationals after high school play ends.

In New Jersey and Pennsylvania there are strong “short season” AA programs that have been developed to accommodate high school players, and many full-season AAA programs scale back practices and games a big during the school season.

Then there are other areas of the country that are not considered traditional hockey markets, but where the sport is growing rapidly at the grassroots level and where high school hockey is becoming more popular. Some of these areas may have pretty strong private school leagues that feature a level of play equivalent to low or mid-level AA club hockey. And some of the public school teams in these areas may compete at that level as well, but many times the public school teams do not have varsity status or school funding and play at a level that is considerably lower than that.

It is these areas where the elite players who want to continue playing beyond high school and 18U must turn to AAA hockey – or high-level AA hockey – to best position themselves to realize their goals. In almost all cases these are full-season programs that expect their teams to be the kids’ No. 1 hockey priority. Thus, when conflicts arise, the school teams and the overall level of play in their games suffer as the top players can’t or won’t participate.

Many of the public schools in these areas don’t have varsity status, don’t practice that often and might play 12-to-15-game schedules. They simply don’t require the commitment that the funded private schools do, and since the programs are not varsity they almost always take a back seat when it comes to a player’s decision-making process.

In many cases, the top AAA players may choose not to play high school hockey at all because the level of play is much lower and playing club hockey already is a huge time commitment. Also, not every school offers hockey, so the only way for some of the better players to play is to find a co-op program, which just isn’t the same as truly representing your own school.

The folks who run many of these leagues put an incredible amount of time and energy into making the experience great for those who participate, promoting the leagues and giving the product an overall professional feel – for very little or no return. These advocates for the sport at the high school level feel that with the growth in participation there is a great opportunity to improve the level of play in their areas and create a viable varsity entity that would be fun and beneficial for all players while also generating fan interest and student support on campuses. 

They likely are not wrong, but it’s truly a chicken-and-egg situation in most areas. The best players want to maximize their chances to play in college – whether that’s at the NCAA, ACHA or CHF level. To do this right now they feel the need to play full-season, high-level AA or AAA hockey. That almost always is going to knock school hockey down on the priority list. Most club hockey coaches leverage the player’s long-term goals and the lower level of play in school leagues to get a full commitment from their players.

School-hockey proponents argue that if all local clubs were required to offer only split-season programs at the midget level, more kids would be open and available to play on high school teams and that the quality of play would increase to the point that it potentially could become a viable varsity-level product.

That also very well may be true, however these decisions should always be made with the best interest of the players in mind. A look at the New England model demonstrates that while high school hockey is a staple and offers players a fairly high level of play, it’s not what is helping kids get opportunities at the NCAA level.

Is there any realistic chance that high school hockey in most less-traditional markets could ever evolve to the point where it approaches the popularity or level of play that exists in New England? Probably not. In Minnesota or Wisconsin? Doubtful. The truth is that the level of play in almost all high school sports is dropping as the big business of youth club sports continues to explode and those events are often scouted more regularly than high school games.  

Another consideration: Would the regional and district arms of USA Hockey be willing to mandate that their member clubs lose money by offering less-expensive split-season programming at the midget level? And risk that their top programs in those areas might bolt USA Hockey altogether or create offshoot rogue AAA programs at the midget level to keep the money coming in and avoid the legislation? Probably not.

So, that brings us back to the concept of providing options and letting each individual player and family figure out what is best for them.

The split-season or “short-season” model has already proven to have legs at the AA level in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Kids in those areas can choose between a split or full-season model based on their ability, budget, commitment level, desire to play for their school and future goals.

Similar models are being created by individual clubs in other areas that feature preseason training, a 20-25 game schedule between late August and early November and more games later in the season as high school hockey winds down. Most of these exist at the AA level, although it has been attempted at the AAA level, too. Some school teams even have aligned with clubs and created opportunities for their players to play a split-season schedule together against club teams to allow them to play more high-level games, bond and prepare for their school seasons.

With all the showcase leagues and events and scheduling options out there, these teams can create very competitive schedules that challenge their kids and help them develop early in the season. This benefits the school teams, too, as the players are better trained and prepared when those seasons get underway. These split-season alternative teams also can provide optional training sessions and more practice ice time during the high school season for kids’ whose high schools don’t practice often and crave more ice time, players who don’t have high school teams to play for and kids who just can’t get enough.

Another piece of this is the educational component. These days there are so many ways via video, technology and spring/summer exposure events for kids to compete against top competition and be seen by college and junior scouts. Families need to be made more aware of all their options.

With an educational approach, local clubs and schools can work together to help families understand that it is possible for young players to play for club and school teams and still realize their hockey dreams. You don’t have to play AAA hockey for the entirety of your childhood to continue playing beyond high school and 18U. If a good young player wants to play at a high level and still be able to compete for his or her school team and have an opportunity to advance to junior and college hockey, there are more ways than ever to do that.

And that – 3,000 words later – brings us back to where we started. In most parts of the country, the decision between playing split season and full season should be based on what’s best for the player and the family. 

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