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Your Career Doesn't End if You Don't Get the Offer You Want

By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com

Powell River Peak Photo

It’s been a strange and trying spring for youth hockey families everywhere.

Tryouts and draft camps have been cancelled or postponed. Terms such as “virtual tryouts” that didn’t exist six months ago have become part of our everyday vocabulary. Ice rinks in some areas have been open for weeks, while some still aren’t open or are opening soon.

Despite the uncertainty and impossibility of holding full, in-person tryouts in many areas to date, the arms race has continued as clubs and teams rush to sign their preferred players to 2020-21 contracts before their rivals can.

Many districts around the United States allowed teams within their boundaries to offer Tier 1 player contracts without holding tryouts.

Where I live, the date that contracts could first be offered to new players was June 1, and the panic in the air among local hockey families has been palpable for the past several weeks. And while that is understandable, no matter what happens, it’s literally not life or death and certainly not the end of any player’s career if the contract he or she is looking for isn’t offered immediately or even if the player doesn’t make the team that is his or her top choice.

First, consider this.

My son played for a local 18U AAA team four years ago. At no point during that season did we have a full roster, and I know for a fact that our coach would have added players at any point before January 1 – not just any players, mind you, but players he was sure were capable of playing at that level.

Many AAA teams traditionally leave spots open after tryouts in hopes that they will find a player who is better than the ones currently available later in the summer or early in the season. Most players don’t want to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing where they might be playing and choose to sign with another team, which can leave the original team in a bind and still looking for players as the season approaches.

In the years since my son played I know that even under normal circumstances when AAA teams in our area have held actual tryouts in April, they have not filled their rosters immediately after tryouts. They usually have some bubble kids who are allowed to continue skating with their teams to see how they develop while they continue to look for players who they can add to their rosters who whill help them be successful.

If these teams aren’t filling their rosters this early in a normal year, do you really think they are going to fill them this year in the midst of all the COVID craziness?

Tier 1 coaches don’t take building their rosters lightly, so unless they absolutely are convinced a player can help their team, they are going to wait and see if they can get the potential players they aren’t sure about on the ice in a true tryout situation.

That sentiment is backed up by the following statement I found on a AAA team’s website: “We do not anticipate any of our rosters being filled during these two windows and are committed to having supplemental on-ice tryouts to fill out our teams with the best players in the region.”

So if you didn’t get a contract on June 1 or haven’t heard from your top choice yet, it’s hardly time to panic.

Give it a little time then reach out to let the coaches of the teams you hope to play for know that you are still very much interested and ask them to keep you in mind. If a particular team is your No. 1 choice, make that clear to them while also telling them that you will continue to explore other potential options. Make them aware that you will be continuing to train off the ice and look forward to being able to show them what you can do on the ice soon.

Of course, at that point it is on you to uphold your end of the bargain. Maintain your off-ice strength training regimen, keep up your cardio and practice your shooting and skills. Get on the ice if rinks in your area are open. Make sure you do everything in your power to be at the top of your game and have an edge over those who haven’t worked as hard whenever tryouts do take place.

Second, understand that no matter what happens today, tomorrow, next week or July 25 as far as where you ultimately end up playing, it will not guarantee you anything as far as achieving your long-term hockey goals.

If you don’t make the desired Tier 1 team, it’s not by any means the end of the road for you. And if you do make the cut, you still have to be willing to make the commitment to the sport on and off the ice necessary to continue moving up the developmental ladder and progressing toward junior and college hockey. Playing AAA hockey doesn’t guarantee you anything other than perhaps a little ego boost. 

No matter the level at which you play, the burden is on the player to dedicate the time and effort necessary – while being coachable and hungry to improve on a daily basis –  to prove that he or she is ready to advance to whatever the next level may be.

There are so many different pathways leading to junior and NCAA-level hockey – and still others that lead to great academic and hockey opportunities at the ACHA or CHF level – that it isn’t worth looking back or stressing out over what might have been. If you make the most of whatever situation and opportunity you are presented with and do everything in your power to prove that you are capable, ultimately you will be a better person and player with plenty of great opportunities from which to choose.

When my son was going into his second year of 16U, both local Tier 1 teams made him offers. One of the coaches told my son if he stayed with his AA team and didn’t play for his AAA club that his hockey career essentially would be over. Oh, and he gave him 24 hours to make up his mind.

To my son’s credit, he walked out of that meeting and said that while he liked the coach – with whom he had trained quite a bit during the previous year – he didn’t appreciate what the coach said or how he was treated in that meeting. My son went back to tryouts the next day and kept playing hard, but told the coach he needed more time to make his decision.

Despite the pressure to make an immediate decision, the offer was not pulled. Ultimately my son chose to stay with his AA team, which he knew he would captain and would be playing in a high-level showcase league against a bunch of AAA teams in New England. The team he turned down was playing at the AAA “American” level.

“My team is going to be better. I’m going to be captain, and we will probably go to Nationals again. We are playing as good of a schedule as they are, and it will be a lot cheaper.”

While in my heart I may have thought it was time for him to move up to Tier 1, he made the decision and backed it up with solid reasoning. I knew he loved his teammates and coaches and would make the most of his situation.

Fast forward and he played one more year of AA then captained an 18U AAA team in his age-out year, led his league in scoring, was an all-star in another league and got drafted in the NCDC and NAHL. After two years playing in the NCDC he just finished up his freshman year playing NCAA Division III hockey for Suffolk University in Boston.

Another player who I have worked closely with NEVER made the jump to Tier 1. He played AA through his first year of 18U then made the leap to juniors. After two years playing in the Eastern Hockey League (EHL), where he was an all-star and all-academic selection, he recently was accepted to a NESCAC school and told that he would have a spot on their highly ranked hockey team’s roster with a chance to work his way up.

All he wanted was a chance to attend that type of high-quality academic institution and play hockey. Mission accomplished. He’s more than willing to prove himself on the ice.

Another local AA product made his commitment to play at the NCAA Division III level for one of the SUNY schools this year. He played his entire career with a club that only had teams competing up to the AA level before playing two seasons of junior hockey at the USPHL Premier level and recently making his college commitment.

He was a teammate of my son’s on that strong 16U AA team along with another player who played his 15- and 16U seasons for that club AFTER playing at the Tier 1 level for a program that just wasn’t as strong and didn’t provide the same exposure opportunities. That player went to prep school for two years after two season of 16U AA, spent time in the NAHL and EHL and recently made his college commitment.

That’s three players from the same local 16U AA hockey team that will be playing NCAA hockey this coming season and a fourth from another area AA club.

Another local kid played AA up through 15U was invited to USA Hockey National Camp last year before moving up to the AAA level for the first time this past season, earning a trip to his league’s all-star game and signing to play Tier 1 hockey in Boston for the upcoming season as a first-year 18U.

And still one additional local product played through 16U for the top AA program in our area was drafted in the NCDC the same year as my son. He played two years in that league, got a few games in the USHL and then scored 31 points in the BCHL, one of the top junior leagues in North America, this past season. He is scheduled to matriculate at RPI, where he will play NCAA Division I hockey, this coming fall.

The pathways to NCAA hockey are almost endless and dependent upon each individual’s situation. If you have what it takes inside of you to make the most of whatever opportunity you are presented, you have a chance. If you make sure to align yourself with good coaches who have a track record of moving players on to higher levels and a team that plays a rigorous schedule with strong and like-minded players to practice against, you will continue to get opportunities to advance.

College-hockey television commentator Dave Starman is one of my favorite people in the sport. Very few people see more amateur hockey or do more to help grow the game than he does. He also happens to be a Tier 1 youth hockey coach.

"There is no question that players at this age group are certainly responsible for their own careers," Starman wrote in a recent article discussing players moving into their mid-teenage hockey years. "Their coaches see them maybe three hours a week in practice, so what they do with the other hours in terms of stretching, rest, studying, training, etc. is up to them. Some run with the responsibility, some expect to have it handed to them. That being said, they need to be coached, taught, trained and developed."

Many times playing at a slightly “lower” level can help a young player develop his or her game more than playing at a higher level but in a much-reduced role. There are ways to get exposure to higher-level competition and scouts through summer training programs and spring/summer showcase opportunities – as well as by attending select legitimate junior tryouts and college prospect camps.

Be a leader on your team. Continue to put in the time and effort on the ice, off the ice and in the classroom. Be coachable and take advantage of every opportunity. Get into a great off-ice training program with a certified strength and conditioning coach. Go play against some higher-level competition in the spring and summer so you can get feedback about your play and learn from other coaches what you need to do to continue progressing and reach your goals.

Don’t get angry if you struggle or get feedback that you need to improve. You can’t get better without leaving your comfort zone. Instead, come back home and grind it out – be ready to get on the ice and start working on the details of your game that can carry you to that next level. And keep working off the ice to get stronger while improving your understanding of the game.

Make the most of every single opportunity that comes your way, and whatever happens, this summer won’t matter. It will just make an even better story when you achieve your goals.

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