By Scott Lowe - MyHockeyRankings.com
It seems like it was just yesterday that we were wondering when ice rinks might open back up and if we would even have a 2020-21 hockey season.
Those were very stressful times for young hockey players around North America as they also wondered when tryouts might take place – if they would be held at all – and if teams might be picked without them having an in-person opportunity to show prospective coaches exactly what they were capable of on the ice.
Adding to the stress was the lack of understanding about what the COVID-19 situation might mean for players’ immediate hockey futures. With ice rinks shut down by local governments in response to the spread of the coronavirus throughout North America, young players were asked to be patient while finding ways to maintain their fitness levels, build their strength and refine their hockey stills off the ice.
It was an uncertain and unprecedented situation that tested organizations, families and players everywhere. In some areas of the United States, teams were allowed to offer contracts and fill the bulk of their rosters without holding tryouts. Elsewhere tryouts were pushed back to the summer or even the fall. And there are areas of the country where tryouts have yet to be held with games and league play still on hold.
Canada moved more slowly than the U.S. toward reopening, so hockey of any kind was prohibited in many rinks until August. While junior hockey games are being played in some areas of Canada, by and large Canadian players have been limited to small-group skills and skating sessions and modified, non-contact games.
In some parts of Canada, leagues and associations are hoping to move toward localized – but still modified – games in the weeks ahead and to continue pushing forward toward more normal game play and seasons as long as the COVID numbers continue to improve. Recent spikes in cases have put a hold on some of those plans, however, and for many young players a hockey season still is not imminent.
With so many hurdles still to overcome in both countries and the kids who are back to playing games in the U.S. just starting to get accustomed to their teams and coaches, it seems almost unfair to write this, but it already is time for players to start thinking about their long-term hockey goals and where they might like to play in the future.
That’s not intended to cause panic or make anyone relive the stressful times of March, April and May. It’s just never too early to start planning and reaching out to coaches of programs that you think might be a good fit and help you achieve your goals. I’ve already personally had several New England prep school, AAA, academy, junior and college coaches reach out to me about potential future prospects.
Too many players wait until later in the season or even after their seasons to begin that process. That’s a bad idea in a normal year, but in 2020 it may be a worse idea than ever to put off starting the process.
First of all, right now as we continue to wade through the COVID crisis, most kids have fewer school and other outside commitments – including hockey – than usual. In the spring when most of us were locked down, it was recommended that young hockey players take advantage of the extra free time to concentrate on areas such as strength training, watching video and skill development that they might not normally have time to focus on.
The players who did that realized substantial gains when they returned to the ice and found that they were way ahead of the many kids who didn’t heed that advice. So why not take a similar approach now?
It’s a great time to start researching schools, organizations or teams that you might be interested in and to create a list of potential destinations for next year or beyond. Answer online team questionnaires, gather helpful information from websites and request any other information that you might need to help narrow your choices.
The second reason to begin this process now is because most coaches are in the same boat you are; many of them have more free time than usual because their hockey activities have been curtailed somewhat, there are fewer events than usual for them to scout in person or they are not permitted to leave campus to recruit.
Many prep schools are not allowing students or staff to travel for the time being, and at the college level the NCAA has instituted a dead period for Division I coaches, which means they cannot have in-person contact with any potential recruits. Division II and III coaches are subject to any school and local restrictions that are in place. For example, coaches in New York are not allowed to recruit outside the state.
This doesn’t mean that recruiting isn’t happening, but it does mean that coaches have more time than usual to respond to emails, communicate with recruits and watch players on video.
“Normally by this time of the year I’m gearing up for our season and have been out all summer watching players play in the various off-season showcases and tournaments that are held in our area,” said Brian Troy, head coach at the Winchendon School in Massachusetts. “I wasn’t able to do that this year, so I’m reaching out to players I may have seen in the past and players who are being recommended to me to get the process started. We’ll be looking at video the kids send us and probably watching some games that are streamed. Hopefully we will be able to get out and watch kids in person soon. It’s definitely going to be a different year in terms of recruiting.”
Even junior coaches, who often are busy this time of year coaching their teams and hopping from showcase to showcase to scout prospects, have more time available since the number of hockey events available for them to scout – and the number of youth teams actually playing – is much lower than usual.
One of the biggest complaints I hear from young players looking to be recruited and play at a higher level in the future is that coaches often don’t respond to emails and phone calls right away. It’s important to remember that these coaches may be responsible for between 25 and 50 players who are in their programs at various levels on a daily basis while also communicating with the prospects they are considering for the following year. And they have lives outside of hockey.
Even if you are a team’s top recruit, you likely are not the coaches’ No. 1 priority on most days. They are trying to win games and run a successful program first and foremost. To do that they have to plan and run intense and competitive practices, coordinate team and individual meetings, scout opponents and break down film, create scouting reports, watch and communicate with recruits, oversee the program’s budget, coordinate team travel, work with players on skill development individually and in small groups, travel for games and scouting and report to their superiors, among other duties, while trying to have a life and make family time outside of the sport.
During a normal year, the longer you wait during the season to reach out to coaches, the busier they get as their seasons and recruiting ramp up. Take advantage of this year’s unusual circumstances to get ahead of the game now by reaching out and hopefully starting to build a rapport instead of waiting.
“We haven’t really had an unusual uptick in kids reaching out to us,” said Bob Shattell, assistant coach for NCAA Division III SUNY Morrisville. “I think it’s such an unusual year for everyone that people are still figuring it all out. I’m sure as the season wears on we will hear from more kids than normal.”
If you think things get busy for coaches later in the season under normal circumstances, this year is only going to get crazier as the world continues to open up and everyone is scrambling to make up for all the lost time. Coaches prefer to watch players in person before committing to them, so if more hockey is being played after the first of the year – including their own games – they are going to be scrambling to see as many players in person as possible while running their own programs.
Players who have gotten on the radar now – even if you aren’t playing games yet and don’t know when you will be – will have a distinct advantage in terms of getting seen and being able to communicate on a regular basis with coaches during that frantic period between January 1 and the spring.
The more a coach can see you play – in person or on video – the more likely it is that the coach will grow to appreciate everything that you bring to the table as a player. And the more you can communicate with a coach, the more likely you are to build a strong relationship and allow the coach to really get to know you as a person. If two players are relatively equal on the ice, a coach is more likely to take the player who is a known quantity to him off the ice and has taken the time and made the effort to build a relationship over one who is more of an unknown.
Character, maturity and finding a player who will fit in well off the ice are important, too, and right now is a great time to connect and start building the right kind of rapport. The last thing you want to do is wait so long to reach out that you don’t even hear back from a coach until the spring when every player is trying to find a home for next year. Next spring figures to be even more chaotic than usual given that so many players are likely to have had fewer opportunities than usual to be scouted in person.
Of course, there are additional obstacles to getting seen right now, so that only adds to the importance of building relationships. Some traditional exposure events have been cancelled on top of the on-site recruiting restrictions many coaches face and travel limitations that have been placed on some teams. That makes it more difficult to be seen in person and places an added importance on players having video of themselves available for coaches.
Getting video together also has been made more challenging as many rinks have shut down their live video feeds to avoid public scrutiny. Fewer big events also means that fewer games are being streamed. And some teams aren’t playing games at all yet, making it impossible for their players to provide any recent video.
Again, that makes reaching out early and often more important than ever. Coaches are aware of the situation. They have been dealing with it themselves since last March and are adapting on the fly and being creative on a daily basis. Coaches will not hold it against you for not playing games in their area or having good recent video available.
“I would suggest that players make contact with the coaches and programs they’re interested in, especially for the kids playing in markets that are not necessarily near colleges they’re interested in,” Shattell said. “A lot of kids in those markets really bank on the showcases to garner attention or be seen, and with many showcases being cancelled or pushed back, it’s difficult for coaches to see every team and player they’d be interested in. Making first contact and opening that door allows a coach to be able to watch a game on LiveBarn
or Hockey TV and to start to do research on the player.”
By reaching out to coaches now and expressing interest, showing the maturity to follow up on a regular basis and letting them get a feel for who you are as a person, you will have a big advantage as the season winds down and the other players who waited to reach out start flooding them with calls and emails.
If you’ve already built a relationship, your emails will stand out and your calls are more likely to be answered, while those coming from others may have to be ignored for a while. That, in turn, will allow you to be confident that any video or other information you provide as it becomes available will get looked at and that you will be given strong consideration for a spot on the team or an in-person tryout opportunity.
It all starts with a simple email right now. Say hello. Introduce yourself. Express interest in the program. Keep it simple and let the coach know that you will be in touch in the future if you are playing in the area and to send game video.
A little effort now during your free time can go a long way toward helping you find the right home that allows you to take the next step toward realizing your hockey dreams. And it should make your spring a lot less stressful.