Suffolk University Athletics Photo
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
Even though we’ve mercifully turned the corner from 2020 and are a few weeks into 2021, as far as hockey is concerned, we still face many unknowns as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc throughout North America. Many leagues and teams in areas that halted play for a while are back in action, USA Hockey has agreed to push its National Championships back as some leagues look to extend their seasons deeper into the spring and many Canadian players are still wondering what comes next.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the remainder of the 2020-21 youth and junior hockey seasons, the distribution of a vaccine brings hope for a return to near-normalcy in the foreseeable future. There appears to be little doubt that by late August and early September youth and junior players around the continent will be chomping at the bit to get back on the ice and ready to compete in a full and uninterrupted season. Fingers crossed.
That means we will have the usual array of new players on different teams, players competing in new age groups and players stepping up to take on the challenge of competing at higher levels. As we learned in 2020, even in the midst of a global pandemic the hockey calendar marches on.
While some teams push toward their playoffs and other postseason tournaments, players in other programs are just hoping to be able to have any type of season at all. Either way, this is the time of year that many young players start thinking ahead to next season and what their hockey futures may hold.
One thing you won’t see here is speculation. Speculation leads to panic and the widespread distribution of misinformation. Most people don’t seem to read much these days. Writing is a lost art, because so many people aren’t willing to take the time to actually sit down and consume something in its entirety.
For kids and families involved in hockey, specifically if the player’s ultimate goal is to play at the junior and college levels, it is imperative that they be willing to take the time to do their homework. The hockey landscape can be extremely confusing, offering many potential pathways and pitfalls, and one wrong turn can lead to thousands of wasted dollars and a dead end for the player hoping to advance.
Unfortunately, in the 21st century we have become accustomed to – and reliant on – instant news and instant gratification, which often leads to the spread of misinformation. Even worse than people believing what they read in click-bait headlines is people believing what they hear second hand from people who only read those click-bait headlines.
I mention this only because it has become pretty clear to me over time, as I have tried to help more parents answer questions about how their kids can achieve their hockey goals, that much of the information and advice I have provided to help people navigate the process has not been absorbed.
Part of me wants to chalk that up to the modern-day aversion to reading, shorter attention spans, people having less free time and the need for instant gratification. I still would like to think that if a topic is really important, people won’t mind taking some time to read about it. And I know for a fact that there are people out there scouring every article who truly appreciate the information provided.
So while I think that our soundbite society has something to do with this phenomena, there has to be something else going on; and the more I interact with people individually the more I think there is just a prevalent “this doesn’t apply to me” mentality.
It’s similar to when parents or players ask me for my opinion about where they stand or what path they should consider – or they ask me to get them an opportunity to skate with a team or be seen by a coach so they can get some independent feedback – and then they get angry or debate what they are told when it’s not what they want to hear.
It’s flattering for someone to ask my opinion, and I do my absolute best to use all the resources at my disposal and all the information I have gathered over the years – along with my knowledge of the game and what it takes to play at certain levels – to provide the best advice possible. But it can be incredibly frustrating when someone disagrees with what I say or questions the information I provide after seeking my advice or opinion.
If you already know – or think you know – then please don’t ask.
That is a waste of my time and yours. There seems to be a group of people that wants validation, not real feedback, and they will ask the same questions and for the same advice from as many people as it takes until they hear what they want to hear.
I’ve sent players to skate with Tier 2 junior teams who have gotten indignant with coaches when they tell the players that they are very good and have a bright future but aren’t quite ready for that level yet. Angry players who have attended NCDC predraft camps have ripped up Tier 3 USPHL Premier junior contracts they have been offered and thrown them in the trash before leaving the building.
Many times, when I enlist my network to provide a kid with an opportunity to skate with an NAHL or NCDC team – and the coach or general manager tells them that they aren’t at that level – the response basically is, “That coach doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Can I skate with another team?”
We call this independent or third-party feedback, and it is critical to determining where a player stands and figuring out what the appropriate next step is to maximize that player’s chances of reaching his or her goals. The point of skating with these teams is to find out from somebody who coaches and competes at a higher level where a particular player stands, and if the player isn’t good enough for that level yet, what he or she needs to do to get there.
Do people really believe that if a kid blows away a coach during an evaluation skate the coach will just let a player who might be able to help that team in the future walk out the door without letting him or her know how well it went? Please trust me when I tell you that every junior or college coach loves it when legitimate prospects fall into their laps.
There are many reasons to seek this type of feedback, but one of them is NOT to conclude that yet another coach has misjudged a player’s ability. What you want and what you are can be two very different things. It’s an important part of the process to determine and accept where a player stands so that the next steps in terms of where to play and what areas need improvement can be more easily understood.
People do it to me, too.
Someone asks my opinion or advice and I provide it while trying to be as professional and polite as possible without misleading anyone. I can’t tell you how many times the next response is, “Well my son wants to play Division I,” or “My son thinks he should play in the USHL or NAHL.”
The main reason I started trying to help families as my son advanced through the junior ranks to eventually play NCAA Division III hockey was to educate the masses about a process that too often is misunderstood and help players and families find the right path for them to maximize the odds of achieving their hockey goals.
By doing this, the hope also is to help them avoid wasting a lot of money that could be put toward hockey or off-ice training, SAT or ACT tutoring, school tuition or funding a bank account instead of being spent to help fund some team for which the player will never play.
Maximizing the odds. That’s the most important concept to understand.
When it comes to prep school, AAA and junior hockey, it’s nearly impossible to tell – even after the fact – if you’ve made the best possible decision; there are too many variables and unknowns about how things might have played out somewhere else. But it usually isn’t hard to figure out if you’ve made a good or bad decision.
There are a lot myths and misunderstandings out there when it comes to junior hockey – as well as some important facts that are essential for players and families to understand as they try to navigate the pathway toward their hockey goals and to maximize their odds of making the best decisions and getting to where they want to go.
Developing a Plan of Action
The best plan of action is to for a player to assess the current level of his or her team first. Build a relationship with the coach throughout the season to get honest feedback about what needs to be done to move up the lineup and play at a higher level. The next step is to get third-party independent feedback from a higher-level coach to determine what needs to be done to get to that level. Then, utilizing the feedback you have received, find a situation for the following season that will provide plenty of playing time in all situations and allow for development and continued advancement.
For example, a player at the 15 or 16U AA level who is one of top-three players on that team might want to look at moving up to the AAA level while keeping an eye on how much playing time might be available and the development opportunity. Playing on the fourth line with no special-teams opportunities and little chance to play in key situations might not make the most sense from a developmental standpoint.
An 18U AAA player who is in the bottom half of the lineup in terms of playing time might want to consider another year of 18U AAA as a top player who plays in all situations instead of going to a Tier 3 junior program and playing a bottom-half role or fighting to be in the lineup.
Players who are aging out of 18U AAA and want to pursue NCAA college hockey, but were not one of the top two or three players on their teams, should look for the best opportunity with an EHL, USPHL Premier or NA3HL Tier 3 program that has a solid record of moving players on to college or higher-level junior programs. Only the very best players at that level should be chasing the Tier 1 or 2 junior carrot. And by very best I mean those who have a strong hockey resume and a proven track record, not third-line players who think all of their coaches have been wrong or unfair.
For younger players at the 14U or 15U levels who are top players on their AA or AAA teams, if the goal is to play the highest level of NCAA hockey possible, leaving home to find a prep school, academy program or AAA opportunity in a hockey hotbed might be worth considering. When examining this path, however, it is important to keep in mind that not every kid possesses the maturity level necessary to move away at that age and that the hockey situation is going to be highly competitive with very few guarantees.
Players who move away and are able to handle everything that goes along with that – and who succeed at hockey – very well might position themselves to reach the highest levels of NCAA hockey. Unfortunately, there are many stories of kids who leave home before they are ready, struggle in the classroom and on the ice and never really recover from that decision in terms of advancing up the hockey ladder.
Parents should not push players to leave home at a young age. It should only be considered if it’s what the child wants and is the right fit from a maturity standpoint, the kid has proven to be a dominant elite-level player who will have no trouble adjusting on the ice and the family can handle it financially – and emotionally.
The key, as always, is to find a coach who fits the player’s personality and style of play and who will provide the best developmental opportunity.
Do your homework, because there are no guarantees. The bottom line is that no matter what role or opportunity any coach promises, the player still has to be good enough to handle it. If he or she is not getting the job done, someone else will move into that spot.
Just as kids entering their senior year of high school should be developing a realistic view about the types of colleges that might be a fit for them academically and in terms of available fields of study, young hockey players at that crossroads should be narrowing their hockey focus by determining where they stand as players and reassessing their on-ice goals to make sure they are realistic and attainable.
Taking an extra year beyond high school to figure out where you are as a hockey player, live on your own and maybe take some classes to get ahead and figure out what you want to study can be a great experience for any graduating senior. But whether you are a hockey player or not, there should be an end game and constant revaluation of your progress throughout the process to make sure your family isn’t spending $15,000 a year on something that leads right back to where you were at the end of that initial gap year.
Stats & Facts to Consider
Below you will find some very important statistics and facts that players and families should be aware of as they try to chart their path toward college hockey:
Only 12 of nearly 460 NCAA Division I hockey freshmen for the 2019-20 academic year went from high school or prep school directly to their college teams.
This doesn’t mean that those were the only D1 freshmen who entered college with their correct graduating classes. There were a handful more who did, but pretty much every one of those players came from either the USHL or the USA Hockey NTDP.
In a given year, the general accepted percentage of NCAA hockey players who enter their freshman year in college from junior programs and not directly from high schools or prep schools is between 86 and 90 percent.
There is a common misconception that by attending a prep school and playing for the varsity hockey team there a player who ends up playing NCAA hockey automatically will bypass juniors. At the D3 level for the 2019-20 academic year, only 9.3 percent or 71 of 737 incoming freshmen hockey players went directly from high school or prep school to college. Most prep school players end up playing juniors before playing NCAA hockey.
As of last summer, of the approximately 460 freshman spots that should be available at the NCAA Division I level for the 2021-22 academic year, more than 305 already had been committed, with more than 60 commitments for the 2022-23 school year already on the books.
What does this mean? With more commitments for these two school years being announced daily, nearly 70 percent of all the D1 freshman slots two seasons from now were spoken for many months ago. Almost all of the remaining available spots likely are gone by now, although there always is a late-signing rush as players transfer or leave programs for whatever reason.
Canadian and players from other countries make getting Division I offers even harder.
If you scan NCAA Division I rosters, it becomes readily apparent that there is a large Canadian presence in American college hockey. The majority of Division I teams seem to have between six and 12 Canadians on their rosters, and I some programs offer a majority of their roster spots to players from Canada. Cornell, the top-ranked team in the country last year, had 21 Canadians on its final roster, and in a random sampling Princeton had 17, Clarkson had 16 and Colgate had 15. The competition for D1 spots has gotten even more fierce as more Europeans are making the jump to NCAA hockey from places such as Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Russia and other European nations.
There is a lot more scholarship money available to great students than to great athletes.
Please don’t make the mistake that families involved in other sports frequently make by pouring tons of money into hockey with the thought that it will pay off down the road in the form of an athletic scholarship. If a player is lucky enough – and driven enough – to beat the odds and get an opportunity to play at the NCAA D1 level, the odds of getting a full scholarship are even smaller.
The NCAA limits the number of full scholarships that a D1 hockey program can offer to 18. Those 18 scholarships can be spread among as many as 30 players. Most teams probably award money to between 26 and 28 of their rostered players. If a program wants to, it could actually award a 2/3 athletic scholarship to 27 different rostered student-athletes.
Most teams tend to vary their scholarship offers, with a few top players receiving “full rides” and other players getting percentage offers. Some players might just get their books or room and board paid for, while others might get 20 or 25 percent of tuition or a higher percentage. Every program is different, with some D1 programs (Ivy League schools, Union and RIT) offering no athletic scholarships and others limited by their conference’s rules. Atlantic Hockey programs are only allowed to award 14 full scholarships per team, for example.
Too many families spend thousands of dollars in pursuit of the difficult-to-achieve Division I dream – and the even-more-difficult-to-achieve athletic-scholarship dream – by sending their kids to multiple Tier 1 and Tier 2 camps and combines – as well as other showcases and tournaments – on a yearly basis. Some of that money could be used for SAT or ACT tutoring and in other ways to help improve the player’s academic performance and open up a lot more potential scholarship money than is available for athletic prowess alone.
Both of my kids – one is playing college hockey and the other is playing college lacrosse – received academic offers of between $15,000 and $36,000 per year from D1, D2 and D3 institutions that were recruiting them. They were fortunate to attend a strong private high school for free because my wife is the athletic director, but my son was a solid, not spectacular, honor roll student with high test scores and my daughter had great grades, but average test scores. So, there is even more money available to those kids who excel both in the classroom and on their placement tests.
And, of course, strong academic performance sets young people up for successful college and professional careers regardless of where the athletic journey takes them.
The Moral of the Story
Many players who should be focusing on where they will be playing next year and making sure that they are continuing to develop and improve are worried about junior careers that might or might not be awaiting them two, three or four years down the road. Not only is money being wasted by young players who are attending too many junior team camps and combines, but time spent attending too many of these camps and combines can be mentally and physically draining for young players and actually set them back as they prepare for their upcoming season.
Attending a high-level junior camp or combine or two for the experience, a self-assessment and to get third-party feedback is fine, but the real focus should be on preparing for the next step and the next level on and off the ice instead of obsessing about two or three years – and two or three levels – beyond where they are at the present time.
The most unfortunate result of this obsession has been that when the inevitable happens and 99 percent of the kids who strive to get to the Tier 1 or Tier 2 levels don’t make it, they feel like they are hockey failures. That is why they react so negatively when a coach tells them that they aren’t quite ready for the USHL, NAHL or NCDC, and why they often seem offended when a coach or scout approaches them about playing at the NCAA Division III level or in a great Tier 3 league that sends a lot of kids to great college programs.
This is unfortunate, because the EHL and USPHL Premier alone combine to send well over 200 players per year to NCAA Division III programs – and because NCAA Division III hockey is extremely high-level hockey. There are only about 60 D1 hockey programs. Compare that to more than 350 Division I basketball programs. In all divisions of NCAA hockey, there are only about 150 teams. Being able to play hockey for an NCAA D3 team is an amazing opportunity that should be cherished and appreciated.
For the adults reading this article, there are a few things we need to make sure of as this process unfolds. We need be certain that this is their dream and not ours. I have had multiple junior and even AAA coaches tell me over the past few years that they are “worried” because mom or dad continues to do the communicating instead of the player.
This parental intervention does not help, first because it is a red flag to the coach that the parents might be too involved and therefore a problem throughout the season, and second because it enables the player to use mom and dad as a crutch instead of learning how to communicate with other adults and advocate for him or herself. These two concerns will become bigger issues for coaches – and hurt your kids more – with each step up the hockey ladder.
The second thing we can do as adults in helping guide young players along their hockey journeys is to help them gather all the information they need to make the best decision for them, and to celebrate support that decision once they make it.
By stepping aside and letting them handle it – after discussing all the options and providing them with every bit of information you can find to help them make an informed decision – you are making 100 percent certain it’s what they want and not what you want, which means they are more likely to buy in to the final decision, give it their absolute best effort and fight through the many ups and downs that are part of the developmental experience.
This is the most important part of the whole process.
If we as adults don’t take the time to understand and appreciate what these young players are up against, to help them develop and understand the realities and to comprehend what an amazing gift it is to be able to continue playing hockey at a high level beyond high school and possibly into college, they are going to feel as if they failed simply because they weren’t able to advance to a level that realistically may have never been within their reach.
There are no shortcuts.
Do the homework. Read everything you can (completely). Seek and accept third-party feedback. And help figure out the best – and most realistic – path to maximize the odds of getting to the highest level a player can possibly achieve.
Then sit back and enjoy the ride.