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Junior Hockey is Not for the Faint of Heart

By Scott Lowe – MYHockeyRankings.com

Twin City Thunder Photo 

This is the time of year – as we navigate the downward slope of the 2019-20 hockey season with playoffs and national tournaments approaching – when the thoughts of many 16, 17 and 18 year olds turn to what lies ahead. 

With more junior hockey options available every year, It’s pretty much a certainty that almost every strong AA and AAA player within that age range will at least receive an email from a junior program making an argument for taking that path and choosing their program. 

Many families are aware that players most likely will have to play juniors at some point if the ultimate goal is to reach the NCAA level. But what most families aren’t aware of is that not every junior league is sending kids on to play NCAA hockey, that all of the Tier 3 leagues are pay to play (and carry hefty price tags) and that whether a player begins competing at the junior level at age 16, 17 or 18, there is no magic potion to speed up the process.

NCAA programs are going make offers when THEY think a player is ready – which for most is when they are between the ages of 19 and 21 – not when the player thinks it’s time. And for anyone who truly wants to play at that level, it may come down to the player having to decide between schools that want the player instead of the schools that the player really wants to attend.

Making the decision to play junior hockey too early can be devastating to a player’s career. A 16-year-old fighting to get in the lineup every night is not getting the game experience necessary to develop. Practicing with bigger, older and faster players of course is helpful for a player’s development, but that needs to be balanced with an opportunity to compete in games.

The speed and intensity ramps up in games and rarely can be simulated in practice. Developing hockey sense, understanding how the game is played at higher levels and training the body and mind to move and make decisions at a higher speed only happens if a player gets quality ice time in game situations.

There also is the possibility that a younger player who hasn’t matured physically and is three or four years younger than many others competing at the junior level will suffer an injury. Even taking that second year of 18U to play for a club team while undertaking a strenuous off-ice strength and conditioning program can make a huge difference when it comes to a player’s ability to compete safely and successfully at the junior level. 

Many players skate well enough and are skilled enough to play juniors when they are 16 or 17, but when you are talking about a 3- or 4-year age difference and playing against older players who are trying to make one last impression on the college scouts in the stands, throwing a player who isn’t physically prepared into that situation can be a recipe for disaster.

The final concern for a younger player making the leap to juniors is the mental and emotional toll the game can take at that level. Players on 16 and 18U AA and AAA teams don’t get scratched. Getting benched is always a possibility – for a period or even for a game – but in general everyone dresses and everyone plays.

There are countless stories of good young players trying to make the jump to juniors too soon or reaching for a level that may be beyond them. Getting scratched once because the coach wants to shock a player into doing things his way or to let a player see the game from a different viewpoint is one thing. But having to fight every single day just to be in the lineup and then being asked to play the traditional fourth-line role – dump, chase, hit, forecheck, bring energy, etc. – is an entirely different story.

Players in that situation often are told to keep it simple and reprimanded for trying to make creative plays. Right or wrong, a player at the bottom of the lineup risks being benched or scratched any time a mistake is made, a goal is given up or the team loses.

This leads to a catch-22 situation in which the player only does the things necessary to stay in the lineup on a regular basis. Doing those things may help keep a player in the lineup, but at what cost?

Confidence often is lost as the player fears being pulled for making mistakes, and the player’s overall development suffers as the limitations created by playing to just stay in the lineup don’t allow for the opportunity to test the waters and find out what works and what doesn’t at this new and higher level of play.

Keep in mind that many junior coaches are playing to win. Whether they are getting pressure from their owner and general manager or they just view the position as a stepping-stone to a potential future position coaching at a higher level, the top priority often is not making sure that every player on the roster develops. In fact, many programs will keep bringing in players throughout the year in hopes of assembling the best possible roster in time to make a deep playoff run.

They are bringing in players to help the team win, not to scratch them or put them on the fourth line. As the lineup shifts and players are bumped down, either more players move to the bubble or others move from being on the bubble to out of the lineup regularly.

As has been mentioned in previous articles, no matter the player’s age or the level of play, there is no reason to rush the develoipmenal process. And it’s also been stressed that families should do their homework and make sure that the player has all the information needed to make the best possible decision.

The goal should be to figure out the highest level at which a player can compete and play a significant role. Certainly if the USHL, BCHL or NAHL comes calling and a player can get an opportunity to play at those levels on a regular basis, those options can open countless doors and future NCAA options and should by all means be pursued even if it means there will be some time spent in the bottom six or fighting for playing time.

But most times a player can’t force those opportunities. Scouts from those leagues spend the entire year looking for players who can compete at that level, so if a player hasn’t heard directly from a scout, coach or general manager on a fairly regularly basis, the likelihood of getting a legitimate opportunity to make or play for one of those teams just by attending a camp or tryout is very slim.

Whatever decision is made, as we’ve stressed time and again, it’s most important that it is the player’s decision. The physical, mental and emotional drain that is junior hockey requires a player who is fully vested and committed to the process. There are so many ups, downs, twists and turns along the way that if the decision on what level to pursue isn’t the player’s, the likelihood of survival diminishes severely. Yes, you read that correctly – the likelihood of survival.  

Here are some examples of what that means.

When you get to the level of junior hockey that my son played for two years – Tier 2, tuition free in the NCDC – you’d think that everything would be merit-based and the politics would be thrown out the window. That’s simply not the case. It’s eye-opening and disappointing, but true.

All that matters now is that Devin made all of the important decisions impacting his hockey career and that his drive and determination got him to the NCAA Division III level playing as a freshman this year for Suffolk University in Boston.

The path was not always easy, but every decision was his and the adversity he faced made him a better player, built character and helped him mature.

Devin was traded twice during his two years in the NCDC; both times he didn’t really want to go because he loved his teammates and liked his coaches, but he understood that moving to a different situation was going to give him a better opportunity to achieve his long-term goals.

After he was traded the first time, the summer before his age-out season, everything looked great:  First line. First power play. Tied for the team scoring lead.

The team was having its ups and downs, but there was a solid core of players – many of whom are currently playing at the NCAA level in top D3 leagues and for top programs – and if the team had stayed together there’s no reason in couldn’t have developed into a middle-of-the pack club with the potential to make some noise in the playoffs.

Out of nowhere after about a month, a couple of new faces surfaced – players from that club’s area who had played for the team in the past and left the program only to be cut by other teams. One player’s family lived five minutes from the rink and his family was billeting members of my son’s team. The other player had been the organization’s first-ever tender the year before.

The week of the season’s second showcase Devin was on the first line and first power play at Wednesday’s practice. These new kids had been around for a week or so practicing, but no one really knew what was going on. That Friday he was scratched with no explanation. The new guys played.

He was told by the coach that they loved him and loved how he played and that he had nothing to worry about. They had too many players and it would get ironed out. Devin played one of three games that weekend with probably 25 coaches in attendance. The following weekend it was the same thing, except he was scratched for both of his team’s games.

At that point he had still been given no hockey explanation. Other players from his line were now being used in lesser roles or scratched, too. A goalie who had been brought in from Kansas before the season to be the starter was now sitting behind another local kid.

My advice to him, as an age out, was that he had to play or his NCAA options would be very limited. He knew it, but he loved his team. Finally, a friend in the Boston area was contacted. He reached out to an NCDC coach who had played against Devin in the playoffs the year before and a trade was executed. It was the best thing that ever happened to him.

He was in a better place and on a better team with better coaching and more college exposure since all but a handful of their games were played in New England within driving distance of as many as 40 NCAA hockey schools.

His team won six in a row when he got there. They beat the best team in the NCDC shortly after his arrival and in a showcase game during his first weekend he had a goal and an assist as his team took a pair of games from the second-place team.

But none of that really was important. The team lost a ton of players over the course of the season because of injuries and foreign players leaving for six weeks to compete for their countries in the World Junior Championship.

Because of that they didn’t reach their expectations as a group, but he got to play – a lot and in all sorts of roles. It started with time on the penalty kill. Then he got power-play opportunities. Finally, by the end of the year he was among the top six forwards and had something like 11 points in the last 15 games of the season.

Most important, within a week of the trade many of the colleges he had been reaching out to while playing outside of New England began responding and asking him to make visits.

That was the ultimate goal many years ago when Devin decided to pursue this sport at a high level: to play college hockey. It was extremely difficult with all the twists and turns the journey took, but we can vouch from experience how important it is for the player and family to keep the big picture in mind at all times while trying to find the opportunity that provides the highest probability of achieving the goal.

It doesn’t matter if that opportunity is on the best team in a league or the worst team. What’s important is that the player will get every opportunity to play and develop, will receive good coaching and will be with a coach and organization that does everything it can to move players on to a higher level.

All of Devin’s coaches commended him on his work ethic, character, determination, team-first mentality, ability and knowledge of the game. Players who possess those qualities are harder to let go, so those are important attributes that a player can bring to the table every day. And as a parent those things make you proud. Those are the things that matter. And those are the things that allow you to almost believe you did a good job raising your kid.

But, also as a parent, a coach for 25 years and an NCAA Division I athletics administrator for 15 years, it was my hope that those are the qualities that would open doors for him both on and off the ice.

I also had hoped that would be the case when the same high-character kid was producing on the ice and leading his team in points, but sometimes things in the world of junior hockey are outside of the player’s control, and that is extremely unfortunate and unfair.

It is what it is.

Someday I hope to be able to help bring about comprehensive across-the-board changes in junior hockey, but that isn’t happening tomorrow. This is the hand we are dealt now, and how players approach that reality and the life lessons that are taken away play key roles in their future success and in helping them acheive their goals. 

My goal always has been to help others avoid similar situations in the future, but there are so many intervening factors and no matter how much faith you have in a coach or organization there never is any guarantee as far as how things will play out.

Recently an organization and coach that I had put a lot of trust in was sold; the coach and GM are moving on after the season, and their entire philosophy changed. A win-at-all-cost mentality took hold and players that had been treated pretty well – and done everything they were asked to do while performing at a reasonably high level – saw their roles diminished.

One player was moved to a lower-level team the day of the trade deadline, so I worked all day to help find him a new home at the same level in the same league. Once a trade partner was located his team, which had said that all they wanted to do was help the kid find a place to play in the league, asked for a ridiculous amount of money in return for player they had essentially cut less than two hours before the actual deadline.

Disgusting was the only word I can think of to describe that. Thankfully, with some negotiating the deal went through minutes before midnight.  

One Monday about 15 months ago I woke up at 5 a.m. in a hotel somewhere in Massachusetts to catch an early flight back home so I could make it to work. In the bed next to mine I left a 19-year-old kid who had just played his first game with a new team sleeping and completely unaware that anyone else was in the room.

That weekend he had driven six hours from Rochester, N.Y., to Milford, Mass., so he could get a skate and a game in with his new club. He had no place to live at the time and arrived at 3 a.m. I met him at a hotel since he had nowhere to stay, let him sleep about eight hours and took him to his new rink for a skate. Later in the weekend he got to play in a game with his new team.

It felt good to see his team get a win. It felt great to see him on the ice in a better situation. We had a great meeting with his coach. He was wanted. He was going to play. And the coach told him that he would get to play at a college he wanted to attend. He was invited on a college visit that week, and then the following weekend he was back in the lineup, creating and contributing and a big part of two more wins. It restored my faith in the system – for the most part.

But that morning, as I started to walk out of that hotel room and looked at him sleeping, I wondered if I had steered him down the right path. I wondered if we were doing the right thing. I worried about what the next weeks and months would hold for him.

He had a place to live, but hadn’t moved in yet. That would happen later in the day with me hundreds of miles away. His entire life was packed into his car. As a parent, you want to be there for your kid and make sure everything turns out okay. But you can’t – and shouldn’t – do it all.

Devin got himself out of bed a few hours later, drove to his new home and moved in. He did what he always does, and without complaint put his head down and did what he needed to do.

The next time I saw him he was smiling after a big win and waiting on five teammates with whom he would carpool home. That quickly he was one of the boys. That’s what makes hockey great. It’s the most team-oriented of all sports. If you can help our team on the ice or in the room, we’ll take you in and embrace you as one of us almost immediately.

Unfortunately, many junior hockey “front offices” don’t think or operate that way and could learn a lot from the kids on their teams whose futures are in their hands.

That was followed by a goal and another win the next day.

Devin may be one of the most easy-going people I’ve ever known off the ice. He loves his friends, his teams, his coaches and his teammates and often doesn’t notice the faults and flaws that others from the outside might observe.

While that may not always serve him well personally, as I get older and see the all the hatred and contempt that exists in the world, I consider that an incredibly amazing quality. He does not hold grudges, but is resilient and extremely motivated after proving many people wrong for many years now.

While it is frustrating as a parent to see a kid go through the often unfair challenges that junior hockey presents, there is no doubt that his will and fortitude to overcome those challenges helped him mature and get to where he is now – playing a key role as a freshman on an NCAA hockey team with a 3.4 grade-point average after his first semester.

It was hard to stay out of the way at times and let him make the decisions that would shape his career and ultimately his life. As I left his room that Monday I wondered if I had done enough, said enough, pushed enough.

Looking back, there is no doubt that while we definitely made some mistakes, letting Devin make the important decisions along the way is the biggest reason that he is living his dream.

As he came out of the locker room a few weeks after the trade he asked how his two previous teams had done that day. I didn’t know exactly, but was aware that both were struggling. He checked his phone for the day’s results.

In a million years he would never say anything bad about those programs. He still loves the guys he played with and respects his coaches. He said the last guy who traded him was the nicest coach he had ever played for. That’s Devin.

We looked at each other. Sometimes when it comes to fathers and sons, you just don’t need to say anything. The feelings and emotions are understood.

He smiled a little and said, “I think I played better yesterday.” As usual he was right, but he also got his team going with a steal and a goal on his first shift, and I know that had to feel pretty damn good.

I share this story here only to help others understand that junior hockey is not an easy life or an easy road. And it’s not always fair. But even in its unfairness it provides young athletes with valuable life experiences and an opportunity to confront and deal with situations to which even college students may not be exposed.

It’s not for the faint of heart, but if a player loves the game and wants to play at a high level, there’s nothing quite like it. For better or worse.

And if families make sure the player is the one who wants it and makes the important decisions, no matter what there will be no regrets in the end.  

 

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