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Players and Parents: Try Not to Focus So Much on the Alphabet Letters

By Scott Lowe -

Hockey is not alone. It happens in other sports, too.

A young player with an affinity for a particular sport shows early signs of promise – maybe as young as six or seven years old – and then the race is on for that player to get to the highest level possible as quickly as possible with the ultimate goal being a college scholarship or perhaps even a professional career.

Moving on to higher, more challenging levels of play is always fine – when the player is obviously ready to take the step and when it’s kid-driven and not something that the parents want. In baseball that might mean jumping from t-ball to kid pitch as a 7-year-old or even playing against kids a year or two older, in soccer maybe it’s going from 7-on-7 modified-field games to full-field 11 v. 11 and in basketball it might mean moving up to shoot at the regulation 10-foot basket.

In hockey, though, it seems to be all about the alphabet letters. 

You have AAA, AA, A and B hockey teams starting at the squirt level. All it takes is one kid from one team to make the jump from B to A, A to AA or AA to AAA, accompanied by all the talk among the families and the related social media bragging for everyone to start talking about moving up.

“My kid is the best player and needs to be challenged.”

 “My kid is not improving fast enough playing against weaker players.”

 “My kid can’t be left behind.”

 “My kid needs more.”

 “My kid’s team isn’t good enough; he can’t get better practicing with these other players.”

 “My kid is way too advanced for this level of coaching.”

These are things I’ve frequently heard having been around sports as a coach and administrator for nearly 30 years at every level from the squirts to the pros. And it continues right up through pee wees, bantams, midgets and all the way to the junior level. 

At some point the letters change from AA and AAA to USHL, CHL, BCHL, NAHL, NCDC, OJHL, CCHL, AJHL, MJHL, SJHL, EHL, etc. when the players start looking at junior hockey options. But with hockey, the alphabet letters always seem to be there, and unfortunately too often parents and players get caught up in what I like to call alphabet soup – being more concerned about what level their team is instead of focusing on enjoying the experience, improving and getting quality coaching.

The first thing to understand about hockey is that for most mere mortals – and by most we are talking about at least 90 percent of the players with a realistic shot at progressing to the NCAA level – the recruiting process starts much later than in other sports.

Depending on whose numbers you use, somewhere between 86 and 90 percent of all men’s NCAA college hockey players play some level of junior hockey AFTER graduating from high school, with the vast majority entering college at age 20 or 21. This is true at all levels of NCAA play - Division I, II and III. 

Of course there are always outliers making verbal commitments at age 15 or 16. These tend to be stud athletes who are projected to be national-team level players, future NHL draft picks or top-tier Division I prospects. But according to a College Hockey, Inc. study for 2018-19, “The average age that a Division I player committed to school is 18.9 …”

The average player is committing AFTER high school graduation at the Division I level. The commitment age is even higher at the D3 level as the teams wait longer to see which kids don’t pan out at the highest level and filter down to them – or to see which commitments fall through.

I spoke to an NCAA Division III coach at an NCDC junior game a couple years ago about the players he was scouting, and his response would shock many people. 

“I’m only looking at the kids who are aging out this year unless the kid has told me that he 100 percent wants to come to college a year early,” he said. “And even then we are very cautious, because in August that same kid can come to us and say he’s decided to play another year of juniors and then we are scrambling to fill an open spot on our roster with a player we might not like as much at the last minute before school starts.”

For those who don’t know, a junior hockey age-out is a 20- or 21-year-old player who has no more junior eligibility left after that season. Those are the players who college programs are looking for at the D3 level. And if there are uncommitted players at those ages at the highest-levels of junior hockey – the USHL, BCHL, NAHL, NCDC and some others – those players MIGHT get a Division I opportunity if they have advanced to that level and are late bloomers.

The league that D3 coach was scouting, the National Collegiate Development Conference, is a Tier 2 junior league, which means that its players do not pay tuition and that the league is comprised of a combination of Division I, II and III prospects. In the United States, the only other Tier 2 junior league is the North American Hockey League (NAHL). There is one Tier 1 junior league in the United States, the USHL, and it also is tuition free and is comprised of Division I and professional prospects. All other junior leagues in the U.S. are considered Tier 3 and charge their players tuition to play.

In Canada, the CHL is comprised of the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). The CHL is considered major junior hockey, and those players receive benefits that render them ineligible to play NCAA hockey. Most players in those leagues are hoping to play some level of professionaly hockey. Tier 1 Canadian leagues such as the BCHL (British Columbia), AJHL (Alberta), CCHL (Ontario) and OJHL (Ontario), among others, also produce American college players, with the BCHL sending the most players to D1 and even producing some NHL draft picks.  

For a better understanding of the junior hockey landscape, CLICK HERE.

The bottom line is that the super-young commits are few and far between (like 14 percent are 17 or younger, according to the study), and many hockey people question the wisdom of players who commit too young as well as teams that return those commitments. It’s more and more common these days for players to “de-commit” and change their minds or to be “de-committed” by schools for various reasons.

Does a 15-year old really know what he wants to study in college or do for a career? If he’s not going to be attending school for five or six years, what other factors might come into play during that time period that cause him to change his mind about the school he would like to attend? What will the composition of the team he committed to be by the time they are ready to take him? Will the same coaching staff even be there, and if not, will the new coaches still want him? What if he doesn’t develop physically or hockey-wise as expected and the program drops its commitment? 

And even though they have committed, it doesn’t mean that these players are going straight from high school to college. Most early commits still will be placed in a junior league, most likely the USHL but also possibly the NAHL or NCDC, even though they committed very early.

So, while the kid who commits early and his parents might revel in the old “I want to thank everybody along the way who helped me realize my dream” social media post and love wearing their Michigan, Boston College or Minnesota gear to school and the rink, for those players there still are a ton of unknowns and an incredible amount of hard work and development – on and off the ice – that has to take place for the commitment to actually be fulfilled.

Nothing in hockey is guaranteed.

So, for parents of younger players – and maturing players in their early teens – instead of pushing your kids to the next-highest level as quickly as possible, take a step back and look at the larger picture.

If your child is under the age of 11, he is probably dreaming of playing professional hockey. The college dream likely is yours. Some kids will see college games on television or attend a local team’s game and figure out that they probably have to play in college before getting to the NHL, but in general if you ask a kid that age what his goal is, the answer is likely going to be, “To play for the (insert local NHL team).”

And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all had dreams as kids, and as parents we want nothing more than to do all that we can to help our kids achieve those dreams. But one thing that we should be aware of is that for them to achieve their dreams they are going to have to fall in love with what they are pursuing. No one is going to put in the type of work or make the commitment or sacrifices necessary to realize their athletic dreams if they don’t truly love their sport.

Pushing players into AAA hockey with 70-plus games a year, tons of travel, off-season commitments and extended time away from their friends before they are truly ready for that type of commitment by no means gives them an advantage or guarantees future advancement. Most college coaches will tell you that that prefer well-rounded athletes who have played multiple sports, and that type of demanding schedule is probably more likely to lead to burnout within a few years than to produce a college scholarship (How Much is Too Much?).

So what causes a kid to fall in love with a sport? Many studies cite that most young athletes play sports because they are fun. That seems easy enough, but what is fun to a kid? What makes one sport more enjoyable than another?

Playing and competing with friends and being part of a team. Being successful. Scoring goals. Cool equipment, gear and uniforms. Playing against kids from other parts of town or other areas. Improving. 

These are all things we might hear a young athlete say when he’s asked what makes hockey fun. They play sports because they are enjoyable and can fall in love with a sport as long as it remains fun and they see themselves getting better. They stop playing when it ceases being fun, which also can be for any number of reasons including practices that are too demanding and don’t focus on the aspects of the game they enjoy, schedules that take too much time away from their friends, a lack of individual progress or success, coaches who are too serious or perceived as mean, politics and unfair treatment.

Certainly there are young hockey players who are genetically gifted and advance more quickly than their peers and want to be on the ice as much as possible and are incredibly driven internally without any push from parents. By all means give these kids what they crave and get them in the highest-level program you can afford. These situations are the exception and not the norm, however. 

It is infinitely more likely that a player who continues to play with his buddies for several years, keeps improving as the group improves and experiences incremental individual and team success will fall in love with the game than a player whose parents push him into higher levels in which he is constantly competing against unfamiliar and better players while trying to make an impression on a more demanding coach who may already have built-in loyalties to other players and who may not believe in equal playing time for everyone.  

And that’s without considering the possibility that there may be more practices, more travel and more out-of-season commitments – not to mention the additional financial burden that generally comes with higher-level hockey.  

As long as the child’s program has a credible coach who has the kids’ best interest at heart, gives the kids equal opportunities to play in enough situations that they continue to grow as players and you can see both the child and the team continuing to progress – and he continues to look forward to practices, games and other team functions – it’s probably a pretty good spot.

If there is a desire on the player’s part to be on the ice more, hopefully the club provides skills clinics, small-games sessions or other opportunities for the child to explore new aspects of the sport. If not, there are always summer camps that give young players the opportunity to get on the ice and improve without making a huge 10- or 12-month commitment.

Pushing a young player into a higher-level program at a younger age may lead to a situation where he goes from being a key part of a team to someone who has to give every ounce of energy every time he’s on the ice just to get a regular shift. That type of situation certainly does not foster a love for the spot.

At some point if the player continues to improve and enjoys the process of getting better and becoming a top player on his team, he may ask for more. This might happen when he’s 10 or when he’s 12 or when he’s 15 – or it might never happen at all. Just make sure that it’s the kid driving the boat and not parents pushing or else the minute the first signs of adversity set in it will become a family crisis.

My son told me when he was 15 that he wanted to play college hockey. I remember it very clearly. I asked him why and he replied, “because it looks like it would be a lot of fun.” This came at a developmental showcase he attended the year after he decided he was ready to move from A to AA hockey.

He was an invited participant in an event that included a lot of other really good – and older – players and was doing well enough for us both to think he might have a future. Part of the program included a presentation on college hockey by College Hockey, Inc., and he was sold immediately. He embraced the dream and was willing to do whatever it took to get there, because he had developed a love for the game and a thirst to keep improving.

My son never played above “A” level hockey until he was 15. He tried out for and made a “AA” team the year before when a couple of his friends decided to move up a level. I thought it would be good for him to challenge himself, but he told me he wanted to play with his buddies one more year and then he would be ready to move up. That year he scored well over 100 points, was named the club’s player of the year and knew it was time to take the next step.

He played three years of AA and started to draw interest from college and junior coaches, but he wanted to stay home through high school graduation. His second year of 18U was his first AAA season, and he was named captain and led his league in scoring. He was drafted by teams in the NAHL and NCDC, played two years in the NCDC and is now a freshman playing NCAA D3 hockey – and in a key role – for Suffolk University in Boston.

We didn’t rush the process. He made every decision along the way. I didn’t always agree with his decisions, but they were his. He had to own them, and because of that I never would have to worry about him complaining to me and telling me that I forced him to do something he didn’t want to.  

The first year of AA there were times early in the season that he got benched, but he dealt with it and worked his way up the lineup to become the team’s leading scorer and MVP. He captained that team for two years, went to nationals three times and loved the players and coaches. But he knew he had to take his game to another level to accomplish his goals and play in college, so it was his decision to move to AAA as a second-year 18U 

He chose where he wanted to play juniors and chose to stick it out when he got scratched five straight games early in his first season. Instead of giving up, complaining or asking for a trade he worked harder and became more determined. He survived two years at the Tier 2 level, became a top-six forward the second half of his age-out year and realized his dream by committing to Suffolk last March. If he didn’t truly love the sport I’m sure he would have thrown in the towel at some point during his first year of juniors.  

Even at that level, he dealt with politics, unfair treatment, lies and other things that were frustrating to me as a parent, but served as motivation for him.

Every decision along the way was his, and like me he’s stubborn and competitive enough that he never wanted me to be able to tell him that he was wrong. And he knew the hard work was only going to make him better at the sport he loved and allow him to reach his goal. As a long-time baseball coach at various levels, I probably put more pressure on him when it came to baseball and guess what? He gravitated to hockey. Lesson learned.

I don’t tell this story to brag, although I am very proud. This season when he got to college I was just hoping he could play regularly, so to see all the years of hard work and sacrifice pay off makes me so happy for him. And it’s a joy to know the pressure is off now and he can just relax and play confidently.

Instead, the reason for my relaying his story is to help others understand that there is no need to rush. As young hockey players reach their early teens there may be pressure to leave home for top AAA or prep school programs. For some kids who are mature enough emotionally and are strong enough academically and hockey-wise, these can be tremendous opportunities.

For others, leaving home can be a disaster. Maybe hockey doesn’t go well and then school suffers and a whole year ends up being wasted, or maybe the player quits the sport altogether. Everyone’s path is different and everyone matures on and off the ice at different rates. As parents, the only thing we can do is provide all the information we can to help the kids make the best decision for them and do our best to guide them.

As parents trying to provide the best possible guidance, it’s important for us to understand a few things. In most instances, playing for a good coach, getting an opportunity to play in all situations and developing all the requisite skills that go along with those opportunities – while also developing a more complete understanding of the game – is much better for a player’s overall development and progress toward achieving his goals than rushing to play at a level for which he might not be fully prepared.

Why run off to prep school too soon when you might get stuck on a second varsity or junior varsity team instead of getting to be a key player for your local AA or AAA team? Similarly, why rush into a bottom-six role on a AAA team when you can be a top player on your current AA team? And why jump from 18U AA or AAA to juniors when you have another year of 18U left and aren’t as mature physically or emotionally as the players you will be competing against – and might end up injured or scratched and in the bleachers watching a good portion of time?

Too many times we get caught up in the letters of the alphabet instead of, just like when we should have done when our kids were young, taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture

What is the best path to help the player achieve his goals?

Everyone is different, but understand that there are only 60 NCAA Division I men’s hockey programs and that in a given year that maybe 400 Division I opportunities will open up while there are hundreds of junior teams with thousands of players in North America as well as European players competing for those spots. The odds for most players of getting one of those D1 slots are extremely low, and if you aren’t an early commit or playing in the USHL, NAHL, BCHL, NCDC or another of the top Canadian junior leagues, the odds are nearly non-existent.

All told, there are only about 150 or so NCAA hockey teams spread out among all divisions – compared to more than 300 teams playing NCAA basketball at the Division I level alone – so even getting to the D2 or D3 level is quite an accomplishment. With that in mind, it’s important to find the best individual situation that will maximize your chances of getting to one of those levels.

It’s hard to get there if you’re in and out of the lineup and not developing your game. Players should try to find coaches who they are comfortable with, who really want them, who coach the type of game they like to play and who are known for developing players as part of an organization and league that is known for getting players promoted to higher levels.

If playing NCAA men’s hockey is a young player’s dream, don’t rush the process whether he’s a squirt or midget. Be 100 percent certain that it’s his dream, let him make the decisions and provide all the support and advice you can along the way.

Try to avoid playing the alphabet game and help your child find the path that is truly best for him while enjoying the journey and making sure it’s what he wants. You’ll be surprised when he achieves his goals to look around and see how many of the ones who were pushed into too much too soon gave up the dream a long time ago.

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