No Tryouts? No Problem: Video & Communication Can Save the Day
By Scott Lowe - MyHockeyRankings.com
These are strange days, indeed.
No one needs to tell you that right now. All you have to do is wake up and “commute” 50 feet to your “office” or head downstairs to the “classroom” that you share with your “classmates,” who likely are your brother or sister, to realize this is a whole new world.
When life sends a John Tortorella collapsing defense that has every possible shooting lane blocked your way, you can do one of two things: blast shots into shin guards or adapt and look for another option or take another approach.
Right now, most of the hockey world is taking a different approach.
There definitely is a bit of panic in the air. You can feel it when you talk to players and families about their next steps in hockey, and you can observe in the behavior of coaches who are either chomping at the bit to hand out 2020-21 player contracts or have been doing so for the past five or six weeks.
Tier 1 youth hockey has been an arms race for a while now; that’s not a secret. Competing AAA teams normally hold tryouts at the same exact times as soon as they are allowed to by USA Hockey rules.
Some teams have been known to pull players out of a tryout halfway through the first day to offer a contract to a kid they feel like they absolutely have to sign. Sometimes they wait until the end of the first or second day – or even the final day – to make all of their offers, but that may come with a 24- or 48-hour deadline to make a decision.
Be aggressive, make the players feel wanted and lock them up before anyone else can.
That has been the mentality for years. I’ve seen it with my own two eyes as my son was pulled out of a tryout on Day 1 when he was 16, offered a contract, told he had 24 hours to make up his mind and left with the comment, “Your hockey career will basically be over if you don’t come play for me.”
When you are wrapped up in the situation, with blinders on and worried about making a bad decision that hurts your child’s chances of achieving his or her goals, it’s nearly impossible for a parent to take a step back and objectively observe what’s going on.
That’s all part of the plan. It’s an emotional sale.
The hope is that the combination of being pursued aggressively and feeling wanted – along with the family’s fear of missing out and making the wrong choice – will push most families to sign right away.
Now that I am more removed from the situation and a trying to help young players navigate their on paths I see things more objectively. If they want you that badly the offer is going to be on the table for as long as a family needs to figure things out. Many AAA teams are still looking for the right players well into the summer.
Even under unusual circumstances it appears that the more things change, the more they stay the same – at least here on the East Coast.
While Massachusetts has pretty much let Tier 1 coaches have at it and compete to sign players without requiring tryouts since early April, other USA Hockey districts and affiliates have debated the proper course of action.
Partially driven by a desire to secure the best team as quickly as possible, but also by a need to get some deposits in to generate cash flow that has been lost by not having tryouts, clubs and coaches want to get players signed ASAP. Parents of players hoping to return to a team and who may have been on the bubble in a tryout situation would seem likely to favor this type of scenario as well, because a coach is more likely to re-sign a weaker player who is a known quantity rather than taking a chance on an unknown.
But what about the top AA players who are looking to move up, the better players from a weaker AAA program looking for a new home or a top American-level AAA player hoping to make a National-bound team?
It’s the job of USA Hockey, its district board members and the local affiliates to make sure the process is fair and equitable under any circumstances.
With so many Tier 1 options in New England, where kids play against each other all the time and there are so many opportunities for coaches to see players compete, Massachusetts probably felt like there was no reason to change the timetable for signing players. And there may have been some feeling that by being the early birds programs in the state might even attract more top players from other areas because of the uncertainty so many are dealing with.
Massachusetts essentially kept its usual policy for offering contracts in place just without holding tryouts. Other East Coast regions such as the Atlantic District (N.J., Del. And most of Pa.) waited a few weeks then determined that Tier 1 players could be signed without tryouts starting on June 1, with Tier 2 contracts allowed to go out June 11.
The Southeast District seems to have left it up to its individual affiliates, with the PVAHA (Md, Va. and D.C.) deciding late last week to allow Tier 1 players returning to a team to be offered contracts as of May 26 and new players starting on June 1. At some point during the summer it is hoped that a supplemental Tier 1 tryout can be held to fill rosters after which Tier 2 tryouts can commence.
In the Carolinas, the CAHA decided that no Tier 1 tryout can be held before Aug. 14, with Tier 2 tryouts not permitted to start before Aug. 21, while in Florida the SAHOF is hoping to hold Tier 1 tryouts July 10-12 and Tier 2 tryouts beginning July 13.
And to round out the rest of the Southeast, the SAHA has allowed contracts to be offered, with teams being permitted to fill 75 percent of their rosters without holding tryouts and to collect only a $500 fully refundable deposit from each player signed. Once rinks open in a Tier 1 team’s jurisdiction, it must hold tryouts for the remaining spots no sooner than three weeks after the rinks open to allow players adequate preparation time. The rules for Tier 2 teams in the SAHA are similar.
Meanwhile, most other districts seem to be hoping to hold tryouts at some point this spring or summer and are asking teams to follow any local or state mandates that may permit or prohibit such activities. Others appear to be looking for some direction from USA Hockey following the annual USA Hockey Congress in June.
So the process of signing players has started in some places, is about to start in others and at some point likely will start in most of the rest of the United States as tryouts keep getting pushed back. There are no guarantees of any tryouts happening based on current restrictions and if USA Hockey hopes to get the youth and junior seasons underway by September.
Here in Maryland, like most areas around North America, ice rinks have been shut down since mid-March. Our governor has approved a three-stage plan for reopening while also allowing all 23 counties plus Baltimore City to operate on a slower timeline than the state recommends if they choose because of the COVID-19 numbers in their jurisdiction or upon advice from their local team of medical and science experts.
For example, while the governor approved a partial Stage 1 reopening as of May 15, several counties and Baltimore City chose to remain on full lockdown while a few other counties moved forward with some, but not all, of his recommendations.
In examining a few other states, it seems as though most have developed similar reopening plans, with some planning to reopen in three phases and others in four.
Using Maryland as an example, facilities such as ice rinks, gymnasiums and health clubs would fall under Stage 2 of the reopening plan – but then only with restrictions on numbers of people who could be in a facility at one time, required social-distancing protocol and extreme sanitation requirements. Opening venues and allowing enough people to be in facilities to hold large tryouts, camps, tournaments and games would seem to fall under Stage 3.
Doing some simple math and assuming that we continue to move forward with reopening as planned by the governor while suffering no spikes in new COVID cases or other setbacks, it would appear likely that any type of formal full tryouts would not be able to take place until August at the earliest.
Regardless, youth and junior teams are still hoping to squeeze camps and tryouts in so they can evaluate at least some players in person. The NAHL and NCDC draft dates have been moved. Predraft camps have been cancelled, with other showcases and combines being rescheduled in hopes of allowing teams to catch at least glimpse of as many players as possible.
I speak to junior and AAA coaches literally every day, and here is what I’ve been hearing:
EHL coach: “I’m moving forward as usual, just relying a bit more on video and making a lot of phone calls to players, advisors, scouts and other people I trust. I’m hoping that maybe we get on the ice in June and I’m looking for 4-5 players at the most.”
NCDC coach: “We are relying on people we trust, who know our program and know what we are looking for. We are watching as much video as we can and having a lot of conversations.”
NAHL coach: “In some ways we are in the same position we usually are at this time of year. We watch so many games during the season live and on video and have a pretty good idea who we are targeting to be on our team. For others I watch all the video I can and am on the phone every day with players, coaches, scouts, advisors – people we trust.”
AAA coach: “We have to get as much video on every kid as we can since we aren’t sure if we will get to see them in person before we need to have our roster filled.”
You get the point.
The main takeaway is that with tryouts not guaranteed, it is imperative for players to have video of themselves available to send to coaches. And the second takeaway is that communication is extremely important; being proactive, showing genuine interest and advocating for yourself is critical.
What’s ironic is that the need for video and good communication is always essential for players hoping to play at higher levels. That need is just being magnified by the current situation.
While in normal years February, March and April tend to be the “Christmas rush” for high-level players looking to move to different teams the following season, the process really should have started back in the fall – when there are so many scouted showcases going on – and continued throughout the hockey season.
Players who build that relationship along the way, let coaches and scouts know when they are playing in their area and provide regular updates – including video – throughout the season are the ones who find their way on to team recruiting or draft “lists” and end up getting drafted or receiving offers or tenders early in the spring.
At the very least, many of those players have shown enough interest and promise to warrant a true personal invitation from a coach to a tryout, predraft camp or main camp instead of the mass email hundreds of other players will receive. They have earned the opportunity to get a legitimate look and real consideration from the coaching staff.
This year it just so happens that because there have been no tryouts – and no one is certain if or when there might be tryouts – having the right kind of video available when contacting a coach may be a player’s only hope for making a team. The good news is that there still is time, and most of the young players I have spoken to this spring have not been ready to send coaches good video clips on the spot.
If this was a normal year and you didn’t have any video ready to send to a team at this point it would hurt your chances, but coaches still would have a chance to see you skate in person. While coaches will say that they will find a game or two on Hockey TV to watch and get a read on a player, it takes time find those games, watch them and analyze a player’s performance.
And what if they pick a game in which you didn’t play well or didn’t play as much as usual? Given their time constraints – they are scrambling more than ever right now – they may watch two or three shifts and write you off.
Coaches don’t want to see “highlight reels;” they want to see how you play throughout a game and in all types of situations. By compiling the video yourself you can make sure that what you send them puts you in the best possible light while satisfying their need to see you do more than just score pretty goals.
My son was drafted in the NAHL and NCDC, of course because he was a very good player with a strong ethic and resume, but also because we spent countless hours putting together the right kinds of clips and making them very easy for coaches to access. This continued through two years of juniors and throughout the college recruiting process into last spring when he committed to play NCAA Division III hockey at Suffolk University in Boston.
Now I help young players do the same thing. By no means am I an expert video editor, and at some point I will get some better editing software to make my videos a little more pleasing to the eye. But fancy isn’t what coaches want. They want nuts and bolts clips of full games, full shifts and players in all situations.
With that in mind, below is a small sample of what we created for him and what I have since created for many other players. This takes a good deal of time, but if playing for a certain team is a priority and a player truly wants to achieve his or her hockey goals, it is necessary and shows a true commitment.
An upcoming article will dive more into how we created this YouTube Channel, but this provides a good sense of how easy it is for a coach to access any type of clip of a player in any situation. Two clicks and a coach can see an entire game’s worth of clips or watch many consecutive clips of a player in a specific game situation.
Clips from a full game make up one playlist, but also can be added to various situational playlists by simply clicking the appropriate boxes. Most of the clips were pulled from Hockey TV, while some were shot with a handheld $300 video camera:
The playlist above is all of his shifts from one particular game. Each time we uploaded a shift from a game, if it was a goal, assists or power play or PK or whatever situation, we just clicked a box to also add it to a situational playlist as well. The coach can watch a full game or the player competing in any situation with just a couple clicks (click on any links below):
Communication is Always King
This article has stressed the importance of having video clips illustrating all aspects of your game available to coaches as well as communication and relationship building. Communication is extremely important as you progress up the hockey developmental ladder – and as you move into adulthood.
This year it is more important than ever.
Hockey is a great way to prepare yourself for college and beyond in terms of growing up, taking responsibility and being accountable. Having your parents handle communication with adults – whether we are talking about coaches, scouts, teachers or school administrators – will be detrimental as you move into junior hockey or college or wherever life leads you beyond high school.
And frankly, once kids reach a certain age, coaches do not want to hear from parents.
There are certain discussions that parents should be involved with as players prepare to sign junior or AAA contracts. If we are talking about AAA hockey or Tier 3 or “pay-to-play” juniors, both require a large financial investment, and parents have every right to be involved with discussions involving the financial end of things, contract terms and housing.
But once the contract is signed and discussions become hockey-related, most coaches will only deal with players. This year I have actually seen clauses in contracts stating that coaches will only discuss playing time and lineup issues with players. So it is imperative that as young players move toward adulthood they are preparing to handle these types of future situations by communicating with coaches, teachers and other adults on a regular basis.
Learning how to express yourself diplomatically, make a case for something, advocate for yourself or explain what you were thinking or doing are important communication skills to develop. Players should be handling communication with their coaches with guidance from their parents once they reach their teenage years.
Parents getting involved and offering suggestions and advice is great. Doing all of the communicating for the player is not and will hurt his or her ability to communicate comfortably and effectively with adults in the long run. Too much parental involvement also is a major red flag for coaches.
On the other hand, the danger in parents not getting involved at all – believe me, I’ve lived this with two college athletes in my house – is that your child is still a child and may not understand the importance of being responsive. No reply is as bad – or worse – than a poorly formulated reply.
To most coaches, a lack of responsiveness is a sign of disinterest. They want players who are eager to play for them, and there are plenty of fish in the sea. If one kid isn’t interested a coach isn’t spending a ton of time on that player. It’s on to the next one.
Pretty much every week this time of year I will get a text or call from a coach that says: “I haven’t heard from so and so.” As someone who is trying to help players achieve their hockey goals and dreams, nothing disappoints me more than this. If I’m going to bat for a player with my network of coaches – a network which I have been carefully building over the past six years – the least the player can do is respond to a coach when after receiving a call, text or email.
That brings us to email. Who would’ve thought that one day kids would consider email to be an “old school” method of communication?
Players need to check and respond to emails regularly with the understanding that colleges still rely very much on email communication with their students. Even though young players may prefer other means of communicating in the 21s century, they should get accustomed to using email now to prepare for life after high school and junior hockey.
A lack of responsiveness is the single most frustrating thing that I deal with. Not only does it make the player look bad, but it hurts my reputation as well. That could lead to a missed opportunity for a player and a lost connection for me.
This comes down to what I always talk to young players about. Are you really committed to this process? Is this really a top priority for you?
You can say that it is, but your actions demonstrate whether that is true. Lack of responsiveness shows indifference and makes me less likely to continue recommending a player to people I trust and respect until that player demonstrates that this process truly is a priority.
Kids are busy. I get it.
They have school commitments, sports commitments, family commitments, jobs, social lives, etc. I’m busy, too. There is no doubt that sometimes players will get a message and be in the middle of something and mean to reply later, but several more messages come in and they forget.
All understood. But is hockey really a priority? Like with many things in life, actions speak louder than words.
Are you really committed to this process and doing everything in your power to reach your hockey goals or are you “committed?” Are you willing to do whatever it takes and, do you want people see that type of commitment level?
These can be difficult questions, but they need to be asked and truthfully answered before a player’s parents and family undertake the tremendous financial and time commitment – and make the incredible daily sacrifices – necessary to help the player achieve his or her goals.
For me – and for many coaches – a player who isn’t responsive is indicating that hockey is not a top priority. That may or may not true, but that’s the message that is being sent when there is no response within a reasonable amount of time.
It’s really very simple: Respond as quickly as possible.
While an immediate response may not be required – a player should never let a full day go by without replying – responding immediately shows interest and also is a sign of maturity, even if you are busy and can’t take the time to formulate a full response.
This is a mature, perfectly acceptable response that checks all the boxes for the coach: “Hey coach. Thanks for your message! I’m busy with school right now (or practice or a family dinner or whatever), but will get back to you as soon as I have a chance. Talk to you soon!”
The coach thinks the player cares and likely is impressed by his or her maturity.
It’s really not that hard. If you have lofty hockey goals and truly hope to achieve them, good communication can go a long way toward helping you do just that and set you up for future success on and off the ice.
Especially during a pandemic.