By Scott Lowe - DMVProspects.com
N.J. Titans Photo
It's that time of year again.
Every summer about this time, high-level junior teams around the United States hold “main camps” for up to 200 “invited” players who hope to play high-level, tuition-free hockey. Each team will invite the top 30 or so players from these camps to attend training camp in September and compete for spots on the final roster for the upcoming season.
The common misconception about these camps is that you can show up for three or four days, play well and make a team.
While that does happen in extremely rare cases (EXTREMELY RARE), the reality is that playing Tier 1 hockey in the USHL or at the Tier 2 level in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) or the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) is the culmination of a process that often can take up to a year or 18 months to complete.
That process includes most or all of the following components: playing at a high level and being a dominant player for your club team, relationship building, sharing video, providing regular updates, being seen in person, communicating with coaches, playing well at a predraft camp, getting drafted or tendered, attending main camp, earning an invitation to training camp and proving on a consistent basis throughout the entire process that you are capable of playing at that level.
When it comes to the USHL, already being committed to an NCAA Division I program or drawing interest from schools at that level is huge help as well.
If you are playing AAA hockey – sometimes even AA hockey for the right program – or are attending combines, playing in showcases or participating in elite hockey programs that require an email address to register, there is a pretty good chance that at some point you will receive a “personal invitation” from a Tier1 or Tier 2 coach to attend a team’s main camp.
The vast majority of these invitations actually are mass emails sent to good players who happen to be on an email list that a team has acquired for the purpose of filling its main camp with as many paying customers as possible. Tier 1 and 2 organizations use their tryout camps as a way to fund their programs and provide a tuition-free opportunity to players, so while it’s important that they find strong players and put together a competitive camp, it’s also a high priority to make as much money off the camps as possible.
Most times, all you have to do is talk to your buddies or teammates to realize many – or all of them – have received the same “personal invitation.” But if you’re really not sure and want to find out, reply to the message and say something like this:
“Thanks for reaching out coach. I’m very excited to find out more about your program and possibly attend main camp. It is my goal to play at the highest level of junior hockey that I can and eventually to play at the NCAA level. I’m just curious; where did you see me play, and what about my game made you want to reach out to me? How many players will you be looking for at my position this year, and would you see me as someone who could make the team this season or possibly as a prospect for the future?”
You may not get a response at all, which lets you know right away where you stand or you may get a canned response such as, “Our scouts saw you at the XYZ Showcase and thought you would have a good chance to compete for a spot on our team this year.” Sometimes you’ll get a response with enough accurate descriptions of your game to know that at least someone in the organization has actually seen you play.
Either way, you will have a sense about where you stand, but at least if you get a response of any kind – especially if you are a younger player with three or four years of junior hockey eligibility remaining – the door has been opened to start building a relationship and begin the process that hopefully will result in a future Tier 1 or 2 opportunity.
Building relationships and understanding the process are essential for players who want to maximize their chances of playing at the highest levels of junior hockey. The earlier that process can begin the better, as far too many players wait until the season immediately before they hope to play junior hockey ends to start reaching out to coaches.
If you wait for your season to end before beginning the process of contacting coaches and you hope to make a team the following fall, realize that the organization’s coaches and scouts have been watching players in person since the previous September, talking to players they are interested in, having prospects skate with their teams, building their draft boards and possibly already offering tender agreements.
At that point you are going to be on the outside looking in and better be prepared with everything you are going to need to convince a team to give you a real look. This includes video of you playing in full games and various game situations (not a highlight reel), previous coach recommendations or coaches on standby ready to provide recommendations and the willingness and flexibility to come skate for the coaching staff in person at a practice (if they are still in season) or at a predraft camp.
Very few players are drafted or receive tenders based solely on video or recommendations from scouts or former coaches. Coaches and general managers want to see players with their own eyes in person before using an organizational asset such as a draft pick or tender on that player.
The better approach for players entering what they hope or know will be their last year of youth hockey is to begin this process in the late summer and fall when there are so many showcases and other tournaments that coaches and scouts already will be attending because they provide an opportunity to scout hundreds of players in a single weekend.
As soon as you know your schedule for the season, make a point to figure out when and where any showcases or big tournaments will be taking place. From there figure out which junior programs are within reasonable driving distance of each event – coaches will drive three to four hours or even more regularly to scout a quality tournament – and make a list of those teams.
Once that list is made, dig up as much information on each program as you can. Things to look for might include location, facilities, on-ice team performance, track record of moving players to NCAA hockey, coaching turnover, style of play and how many age-out players they currently have. Using that information, create a list of organizations that are of interest to you.
Do the same thing for programs in other parts of the country and come up with a similar list. These teams all have regional scouts who they will send to the games and tournaments in any area and might even send a coach to bigger showcases that aren’t in their area. Don’t assume anything; if this is what you want to do, leave no stone unturned.
Send an introductory email to the coaches of the teams you are interested in stating your name, birth year, team and a little bit about your goals and credentials to date. Keep it short and sweet since they get hundreds of emails, and also let the staff know what big tournaments you will be playing in or when you will be playing games in their area.
Be sure to tell them that you hope they can make it out to see you play, but if not that you will stay in touch and keep them updated on your progress throughout the season. Then make sure to follow up occasionally with an update on how you are doing and a reminder of your upcoming schedule.
It is important as the season goes along that you are creating a video archive of your better games in case a coach asks to see you play on video. If you have a particularly good game, you might want to include all the shifts from that game in one of your update emails. Coaches really appreciate this. It makes their lives easier and also allows you to control which of your games they watch. Instead of hoping they pick a game in which you played well on HockeyTV to watch, you can send them a game that you know for sure was one of your best efforts.
Remember when sending video that they want to see full shifts of you playing in all situations, not just highlights of goals, assists and big hits. It isn’t necessary to do this weekly, but maybe send a short message and possibly some video once a month during the season. This type of follow-up shows a level of maturity that most young players don’t possess, provides evidence of how much you care and want to play at that level and allows coaches to get comfortable with who you are as a player and person.
The goal here, of course, is to get coaches out to see you play in person and to talk to you after games. If they take the time to do that, it is likely they will exchange phone numbers with you and be in touch on a regular basis. At that point you’ll be on the way to building the type of relationship that will get you considered as a draft prospect or potential tender.
Try not to reach out to coaches for the first time a day or two before you are playing in their area. You are not the only player they are going to be interested in, so if you wait until the last minute a coach may not be able to work you into his recruiting schedule for a particular event.
This process should continue throughout your season.
Some coaches may not have interest at all from the start, others may lose interest and still others who weren’t interested at first may surface later. No matter what direction a relationship goes, always be polite and professional in how you deal with people. Hockey is a small world, and you never know when a coach might get an opportunity at a higher level or an assistant might become a head coach and come looking for you to fill a need on a different team. It’s important to not burn bridges and not take things personally.
At some point you are going to have decisions to make, so the hope is that this process will shed light on which teams are truly interested in you and allow you to get to know the different coaches well enough to have a good feel for which ones would be a fit for you in terms of their personality and coaching style.
Depending on how the season goes, if a team is totally convinced that a player is a fit a fit for their organization, it might offer him one of the limited number of tenders the team has. A tender is an agreement that once signed binds a player to one team in a particular league until he is cut or released. This is a show of good faith on both sides, indicating that the team is willing to give up an asset to secure a player and that the player is committed to that team over any other in that league.
Teams may want to see a player compete against other players they have scouted and are interested in at a predraft camp before determining if they will draft or tender a player. If you have built a relationship with a coach over time and he asks you personally to attend a predraft camp so that he can finalize his draft board, that can be a great opportunity to make a final impression and get selected.
Most Tier 2 teams have at least two predraft camps, so hopefully if several teams are this interested in you there will be opportunities to skate for all of them. If not, make sure that they are aware of how interested other teams are in you and that you are likely going to be on the draft board for several organizations. Once a team knows a player is in demand, his stock usually rises.
There is one common misunderstanding when it comes to the USHL, NCDC and NAHL drafts and tender agreements, however. Getting drafted or signing a tender provides no guarantee that a player will be on the final roster. Drafted and tendered players certainly have an advantage over other potential new players, but they still have to show up and prove that they are good enough on the ice.
Teams will have 23-25 returning protected players coming to main camp along with the tenders and draftees, meaning that there will be 40 or more players competing for approximately 30 training-camp spots. That’s in addition to all the other players who are invited to main camp and are longshots to get a training-camp invite.
Then, if a player shows well enough to earn a training camp spot, he will be one of 30 competing for 23 final roster slots. Leauges oftten set final roster deadlines for after the regular season begins, so it is possible to go all the way through main camp and training camp and even appear in a few games before ultimately getting cut.
Every year players who are drafted or tendered by Tier 1 and Tier 2 organizations find themselves looking for a team after the season has started. The good news for them is that by having made it that far in the process there likely will be other teams at that level looking at them possibly to fill remaining holes in their roster or to upgrade at their position.
Younger players who know for sure that they want to play junior hockey at the Tier 2 level or above – and who want to pursue NCAA hockey – can start this process even earlier, attending a few main camps when they are 16 and 17 to get a sense of what it takes to compete at that level, receive feedback about areas of their game to improve upon, make an impression and begin building relationships.
No matter when the process begins, though, it can be a long and winding road that requires patience, diligence, persistence and continued communication. Hockey coaches talk to each other all the time. Sometimes the timing isn’t right for a specific player with a particular team, but if that player impresses a coach enough on and off the ice, there is a strong possibility the coach will go out of his way to help him find a good home with another organization.
Coaches will go to bat for players they truly know, like and respect. And coaches trust other coaches. That’s why going about this process the right way is so important for players who really want to play at the Tier 1 or Tier 2 level.