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Sacrifice and Balance Makes NCAA Hockey Dream Reachable

By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com

SB Nation photo

Life is a series of decisions, many of which are not easy to make.

The major decisions, the ones that have a lasting impact on our lives and shape our priorities and commitments over many years, often are described as us “being at a crossroads.” The road we choose can be influenced by many factors – our family traditions and history, financial realities, education, passions, friends – as well as our goals and dreams.

A couple years ago a young hockey player approached me. This is a player I knew well and with whom I had been discussing his hockey future for about a year. He had played two years at the 18U AAA level and was trying to figure out what might be next. We had discussed many options, and he changed his mind about what he wanted to do several times.

Usually kids looking to continue on beyond 18U to juniors and eventually college hockey start thinking about the next steps in January or February as there are a lot of tryouts and other opportunities to get in front of coaches in the spring. 

I hadn’t heard from this particular player for a while and just assumed that, like many 18 year olds, he had decided to go to college and not pursue junior or NCAA hockey. But here he was, reaching out as a high school senior in April, with his and graduation and prom approaching, to see what opportunities might be there.

For many young players, the decision about whether to go to college or pursue junior and ultimately NCAA-level hockey is one of the first true life-impacting, crossroads-type decisions they face, so it’s understandable if they struggle and change their minds several times.

Remember all the forces at work here; family and school friends may be pushing the player to go to college, hockey buddies might be making the player lean toward juniors and there might be a boyfriend or girlfriend in the picture. Players may change their minds daily depending on who they are spending time with that day or who they spoke to last.

It is a huge decision that can have an enormous financial impact on a family and on the player’s life and future.

“Do you know of any Tier 2 predraft camps I can go to,” he asked. “I think I only want to play juniors if I can play in the NAHL.”

My immediate reaction was one of concern as I thought to myself, “Has he even picked up a stick or skated since his season ended? Will he be ready? Is he serious?”

I responded: “Sure, there are camps every weekend in May, and I know many of the coaches well enough to be sure that you will get a fair look and good feedback about where you stand. Let me check my calendar and find some dates for you.”

The NAHL is one of two Tier 2, tuition-free junior leagues in the country. It sends players on to play at the NCAA Division I and III levels, and the draft traditionally is held in June. The teams hold “predraft” camps, which as many as 150 players will attend throughout May in hopes of getting on a team’s “draft board.” Usually, if a player is a serious draft candidate, he already will have heard from a coach or general manager and know that they will be watching him closely during their camp.

Some players are invited, while others just sign up. This is one means by which Tier 1 (USHL) and Tier 2 (NAHL, NCDC) tuition-free teams fund their programs, so they have open registration and generally don’t turn players away. It’s very difficult to just show up without the team knowing who you are and find your way to their draft board.

When I looked at my calendar, I found three camps on weekends in May that weren’t too far away and were being held by teams I had relationships with. I gave him the dates.

“Oh, I don’t know if I can make those,” he said. “I was invited to three proms.” 

I paused and said, “First of all, congratulations. That’s quite an accomplishment. Second, if you are serious about this, why don’t you think about going only to your actual school’s prom and then attending camps on the other two weekends?”

That was the last I heard from him.

He made a choice and came to the conclusion that other things were more important to him than hockey – a perfectly acceptable decision for an 18-year-old to make since it’s the path that 99 percent of all 18-year-olds ultimately choose anyway.

On that day, or maybe in the days just following our conversation, that young man closed the door on playing hockey at the NCAA level 

I saw him recently at a local rink and he was very happy. He said he was there to watch some of his buddies play and was working and going to college. As I tell EVERY single kid that I talk to about the prospects of playing college or junior hockey, choosing to attend college is NEVER the wrong decision and is something that should be celebrated no matter when the choice is made.

Some kids prefer to put that decision off a little longer in hopes of achieving their hockey goals, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. That decision does come with a price tag however – literally and figuratively. A year of junior hockey on a Tier 3, or pay-to-play, team can cost well over $10,000 when you include team fees, lodging and other living expenses.

On top of that, whatever we aspire to in life – if we want to reach the top levels of a particular profession, become a CEO, earn teacher-of-the-year honors or become an executive chef at the top restaurant in a big city – there are sacrifices and tradeoffs that must be made to achieve those goals. The same is true in athletics, and arguably there are even more sacrifices required of young hockey players who hope to ascend to the NCAA level.

Since our readers are stumbling across this article on a website that ranks youth, junior and college hockey teams from all over North America, the assumption is that at least a fair number of you are players or parents of players who hope to play NCAA hockey. For younger players, their dreams likely extend beyond college to the pro level. Either way, we are talking about a group of kids that loves the game and hopes to someday play at the highest level possible.

Seeing a kid step on the ice or pick up a hockey stick for the first time and light up is a moment parents never forget. I can remember those early days with my son on the ice, bending over and pushing him along the ice as my aching back cried UNCLE and the priceless look on his face. About 15 minutes later he would be virtually in tears because he was freezing and off the ice we would go.

This would be repeated 3-4 times throughout a two-hour session as we would head off to the lobby to warm up, drink hot chocolate and probably play some kind of video game or do something else that cost more money. As parents, when we feel that our kids have an affinity for something at a young age, we try to stoke the fire that’s inside them, making sure that their experiences are as positive as possible in hopes of nurturing a love within them for whatever activity they enjoy.

Skating clearly was fun for my son. Freezing was not. Hot chocolate, pizza and video games all added to his enjoyment of the experience and made him look forward to coming back. Baby steps, as they say. But again, our parental role is to help our kids find healthy and productive activities they enjoy and to guide them along the way until they are old enough to figure out what they truly love.

Like many young beginners who want to skate because they have seen hockey on television and can’t wait to put on all the cool equipment and start scoring goals, my son was impatient. Skating wasn’t enough. He wanted hockey – as much as he could get.

Whether it was ball hockey in the driveway, knee hockey in the basement, table hockey or some kind of hockey video game, it seemed to be an obsession and he couldn’t get enough. But he also loved playing baseball, basketball and soccer, collecting sports cards, riding his bike and spending time with his friends, among other things.

This is when kids start to dream, and when some parents start to push. This is also when things can get dangerously serious.

In this space we already have covered issues such as how much is too much and warned parents and players against rushing the process by getting caught up in hockey’s game of “alphabet soup.”

Those are things to consider when your child shows an obvious affinity for the game. If he or she truly loves the sport, try to understand the aspects of hockey that contribute to that feeling. They likely include playing games and competing, being part of a team and making new friends, cool gear and equipment, scoring goals, the speed and freedom they feel being on skates, seeing themselves improve and the sense of accomplishment and pride that comes with all of that.

Your kids are going to tell you they want to play in the NHL. Then, as they get older and realize there is a path to get to the professional ranks, that goal likely will shift to playing college hockey. At that point they won’t know the difference between NCAA, ACHA or CHF. They will just will know that a lot of professional players play in college first, so that’s what they will want to do.

If the love and desire is there, our goal as parents should be to foster that – not push it.

When a kid already loves the game, that’s enough. Sure, do your research and find a good hockey club with a solid reputation and good coaches. Provide opportunities, but don’t push. If your child wants to go to the rink to skate or attend a stick and puck with friends, do your best to make that happen. 

As long as the player is asking to do more and it fits into your budget and family dynamics, go for it. Just be sure that the push is coming from the kid and not from you. If you truly want your child to realize his or her dreams of playing NCAA hockey, be willing to provide opportunities that your player shows interest in without forcing him or her into more advanced situations that may lead to failure and less enjoyment.

Even though a young hockey player loves the sport, the chances are very high that he or she likes activities that other kids his or her age also enjoy such as playing other sports, going to the playground, sleepovers, visiting amusement parks, swimming, riding bikes, etc.

If you want to help your child achieve his or her goals in hockey, it’s important to let him or her lead a balanced life at a young age. Let kids be kids and enjoy their lives and become well-rounded socially, emotionally, athletically and academically.

Pushing a kid at a young age into a AA or AAA program that frequently travels great distances and plays 70-plus games a year while practicing two- or three-times a week and also having him or her participate skills sessions, private lessons, camps, clinics and other hockey-related activities may provide tremendous short-term on-ice gains. But at what expense?

As fun as hockey is, when it starts taking away other things in life that kids enjoy doing on a regular basis, at some point it can become more like work than fun. That can lead to resentment and burnout – not for every kid, but certainly for the ones who have been forced to play on a higher level-team instead of making that choice themselves.

The sacrifices hockey players must make as they get older if they continue to hold onto the NCAA dream often can be very difficult and will test anyone’s love for the sport. If a teenager facing tough decisions already feels that he or she has made too many sacrifices and missed out on too much along the way, her or she may start choosing options or activities other than hockey on a regular basis.

Suddenly hockey starts to move down the priority list to the point that the dream of playing collegiately or beyond starts to fade and ultimately disappears 

As young players advance up the hockey ladder and become more serious, at some point a commitment to play at higher levels is necessary – AA, AAA, prep schools and juniors all represent viable options and pathways to NCAA hockey. With each step toward the ultimate goal comes a bigger commitment, a larger workload on and off the ice and tougher competition. Those elements lead to more difficult decisions and sacrifices.

If the love of the game and inner drive has been fostered and still lives inside of the player, none of this will be an issue. Hard work and dedication isn’t a problem when you truly love something and see yourself progressing toward achieving your goals.

But if the player has been forced into missing out on being a kid because of hockey frequently at a younger age – and that love and desire is waning – making the commitment required to get to the highest levels likely will prove to be too much as he or she gets older. 

Players pursuing NCAA hockey may be forced to miss homecomings, proms, school trips, parties, school games, beach trips, vacations and other activities that kids and families enjoy. This doesn’t mean that they will miss everything, that it will be a life without fun or all work and no play.

The commitment to get to the NCAA level will include more in-season ice time, serious off-ice conditioning and training, a willingness to go outside comfort zones to build relationships with adults, off-season training, interacting with coaches without parental interference, hours spent putting video clips together and reaching out to coaches and greater focus on school work and studies.

This doesn’t mean that it’s hockey, school and training 24/7/365. Everyone needs breaks. You don’t go to school 12 months out of the year. Pro athletes take breaks. Everyone needs down time to clear the mind, relax and let the body rest and heal.

Striking a balance in life is important when kids are young, as they get older, when they get to college and as they enter the workforce and pursue adult life. It will be important for serious hockey players to find that balance, too, and not miss out on all the fun of being a teen and young adult. But, without question, there will be many sacrifices to be made along the way.

Prioritizing and managing the expectations of hockey coaches, teachers, parents, friends, a boss and anyone else in a player’s life are skills that will aid in the maturation process and help him or her develop life skills beyond what many kids at similar ages will possess. With proper focus and attention, adult guidance and assistance – and by developing a rapport and trusting relationships with coaches – compromises can be reached and life can be enjoyed while still making progress toward long-term goals.

There is never any reason to miss out on all the fun things life has to offer, and by opening the lines of communication with current coaches, potential future coaches and teachers, a good balance can be forged. This is another positive aspect of being driven and focused on long-term goals. Prioritization, time management and relationship building are areas with which many college students and young professionals struggle 

The great thing is that no matter your child’s age, parents can help kids achieve balance by watching for signs of mental and physical fatigue; providing advice on how to talk to coaches, teachers and other adults; and scheduling fun family activities such as trips and vacations during agreed-upon rest periods.

When the player gets to the age of having to be directly accountable to his or her coaches and teachers and able to interact with them, parents can always be in the background providing the guidance and advice to help keep the their child balanced and moving in the right direction.

If you’re struggling with this as a parent, there’s one simple approach that really can help.

Just think back again to that look of joy on your child’s face the first-time he or she skated or picked up a stick and do everything in your power to make sure that joy and sense of excitement stays with him or her – and continues to grow – as long as possible.

As long as that feeling exists within the player and hockey continues to be something he or she truly looks forward to and enjoys, the sacrifices that are often necessary to realize the NCAA hockey dream won’t be so difficult to make.

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