By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
For youth hockey players anywhere, but especially in non-traditional markets, it’s a question that kids who have NCAA or professsional aspirations ask themselves frequently: Should I stay or should I go?
As with most questions when it comes to potential pathways to college hockey, there is no one correct answer or one thought process that is a fit for every family. But while every situation is different, there are important questions that everyone can and should ask before making what amounts to a life-altering decision.
"We all appreciate the questions," said Winchendon School head coach Brian Troy. "We will do our best to provide you with the information you need to make an informed decision."
Keep in mind that this decision is life-altering for every member of a player’s family, not just the player.
"The Biggest thing a family should consider before making the decision to attend prep school would be to make sure it is the right fit competitively," Stephen Mallaro, newly appointed hockey coah at the Albany Academies, said. "You don't want to just make a jump because everyone else is doing it; that's a big mistake we always see across all levels. There has to be a level of comfort in making the jump to the right prep school and competitive environment. Regardless of what level you jump to, there will always be challenges. Is it the right fit for the family, the kid and the school? Do some research and ask the tough questions."
For my son, the first discussions about the possibility of moving away took place during the summer between his 15th and 16h birthdays. That was when programs in New England began actively recruiting him.
Over time he heard from several prep schools, AAA programs and junior teams about the possibility of moving to a more rabid hockey market to continue his career. There were promises of more exposure playing in a hockey hotbed near so many college and junior programs, better coaching, more ice time and faster development.
While walking around campuses such as Phillips Exeter Academy in between games of a summer tournament, it was hard for me as a hockey parent and for a young hockey player not to fall in love with the idea of playing hockey and attending school in such a gorgeous setting with so many resources at your disposal and such amazing facilities.
But after the dust settled and we would return home, as the conversation steered toward the possibility of moving away to play hockey, my son’s answer always was the same, “I want to stay here and play at the highest level I can, finish school and then go play juniors.”
That was that. Every year a new team or school would get in touch with us, but each year the conversation took less time. He had determined the path he wanted to take, so as a parents it was up to us to help provide him with all the information necessary to make the best possible decisions about his hockey career.
Understand that the key aspect of this entire process was that HE had determined the path HE wanted to take. It wasn’t going to be the path his parents wanted him to take, the path his teammates were taking or the path that outsiders who didn’t really know him thought he should take.
If he was going to buy in and put in the work necessary to achieve his dream of playing NCAA hockey, the decisions were going to have to be his. Forcing a kid into something he or she really doesn’t want to do many times can create a self-fulfilling prophecy if the kid doesn’t agree with the choice that is made and decides to prove that it was the wrong decision by not putting in the time and effort necessary to succeed – or by not being willing to fight through adversity.
To reach the highest levels, a player must truly love the game. The more a player loves the game, the less the incredible amount of hard work it takes to achieve his or her goals will seem like real work.
And that’s a great formula for success.
As parents we were there to provide guidance and information, but also to support his decisions and do whatever we could within the framework of those decisions to help him realize his dream.
Looking back, do I think that had my son chosen to attend prep school when he was 16 that it would have improved his chances of playing at the NCAA Division I level? Maybe. There’s no doubt that it COULD have improved his chances, with the key word being COULD. But as we have stressed over and over in this space, there are no guarantees when it comes to hockey.
While I believe that he was good enough at 15 or 16 to go and play at the varsity level for many prep schools, he likely wouldn’t have been “the guy” right away. By staying home to play he was a assured of being a top guy on his team who played a ton of minutes and was used in every possible key situation. Playing at home in Maryland he was able to build an attractive resume as a team scoring leader, team captain and ultimately a AAA league scoring leader.
Maybe that all would have happened playing for a prep school, too, but what if it didn’t?
He very well could have been a bottom-six forward for a couple years who moved into the top six by his senior year. Playing and practicing at that level against great players on a daily basis certainly would have helped him improve his game. He would have gotten good exposure, too, but if he never developed into the best player on his team would he have been drafted in the NAHL or NCDC?
But he also could have risen to the top quickly, been a USHL draft pick and ended up as a top player in the NAHL and moved on easily to a D1 program. The odds certainly wouldn’t have favored that outcome, but it would have been possible.
Then there is the worst-case scenario.
If he had gone away to live on his own for the first time, it would have been a real question as to whether from a maturity standpoint he could have handled life away from his family along with the pressures of school and hockey.
What if hockey had gone sideways and wasn’t working out like he wanted? All the sudden he’s stressed out about hockey or unhappy and his school work suffers. Let’s say he is on the varsity, but has to fight for playing time. Hockey suffers. School suffers. He comes home for Christmas, throws in the towel and wants to stay home for good.
Essentially a year of hockey and school would have been wasted at a price tag of $55,000 to $65,000.
That can happen to anybody, and it has happened to a lot of young people from all parts of the country. Going away at a young age to face pressures that many kids don’t have to deal with until college is a daunting prospect. While there’s no doubt that it presents an incredible opportunity and that some kids are emotionally prepared to take the leap, there are probably more kids who simply aren’t ready.
That’s why going away to attend prep school, play AAA hockey or play juniors before high school graduation is a decision that should be driven by the player and that has to work on every level within the family dynamic.
Here are some important things to think about if a young player is considering leaving home before graduating from high school:
What is the player’s end goal – in his or her words, not the parents’ words?
Is this what the player truly wants?
Is the player ready to leave home from a maturity standpoint?
If the player would be leaving to attend prep school, is the player academically prepared for that experience?
Are other family members – aka the parents – emotionally ready for the player to leave home?
Can the family afford financially for the player to leave home, whether it’s for a AAA, junior or prep school opportunity?
Has the player been actively recruited by the coach?
What is the hockey opportunity?
If the player is looking at AAA or juniors, what is the educational component and is that acceptable?
If the player is looking at AAA or juniors, what is the housing situation and cost?
What is the school or organization’s record of moving players to higher levels – either juniors or NCAA?
If the player is looking at prep school, is school or hockey the top priority?
Now, let’s take a quick look at each of these considerations:
What is the player’s end goal?
This should come directly from the player without prompting from parents or an advisor. In the player’s words, what are his or her goals as they relate to hockey and education?
This should help narrow the focus a bit and right away help a family determine if the expense of attending prep school is even worth considering. If going to a top academic school and playing college hockey at the highest-possible level is the answer, prep school certainly is worth considering. If the goals are more modest, both in terms of hockey and academics, the $55,000 to $65,000 yearly price tag on many New England Prep Schools just may not be worth it. If the decision is more about hockey than education, looking at strong AAA programs at home and in more traditional hockey areas would be much more affordable.
Is this what the player wants?
Again, this should be coming from the player.
When the player’s team travels to New England for a tournament, is he or she begging to go look at prep schools and to try to meet the coach, or are the parents forcing the player to go on these types of visits? Did the player one day just start talking about prep schools as an option, or has the player heard it so many time from a parent that he or she has just accepted that it is something that must be considered?
This is the most important factor in the entire decision-making process. If the player isn’t fully invested, the end result is likely to be disappointing for everyone.
Is the player ready to leave home from a maturity standpoint?
Some parents will say that their child needs to be thrown to the wolves and that he or she will figure it out and grow up once away from home.
While this may be true for some, if a kid hasn’t proven to possess the ability to wake up on time without prompting, to make sure that he or she gets to practices or other scheduled activities on time, to be organized in terms of planning and time management, to keep up with schoolwork and deadlines without parental pressure and to interact with adults and other strangers, sending him or her away might not be the appropriate decision.
"One of the biggest challenges we see is the adjustment to living away and/or with someone," Troy said. "Students will need to be prepared to potentially have a different set of rules and requirements to live by. Living with a roommate can be challening, but also extremely exciting."
Remember that there is a huge financial investment that comes with this decision no matter which option is being considered – prep school, AAA or juniors. A good portion of this probably comes down to whether or not leaving home is truly what the player wants – and then if that is the case, is it for the right reasons or just for some perceived level of freedom that doesn’t currently exist at home?
"Comfort is so important, and I cannot stress this enough to kids," said Anthony Matarazzo, a member of the USHL's Dubuque Fighting Saints organization who has years of experience helping young players looking to attend prep schools find those opportunities. "Go visit the schools. A lot of kids send in their applications without ever visiting schools to places I think they shouldn't. It's the first time away from home, so kids should take time out of their busy high school schedules to see a school and make sure it's the right fit."
Is the player academically prepared for prep school?
Most prep schools offer very rigorous curriculums and have extremely stringent admissions requirements.
"The academics are more demanding, with smaller class sizes and teachers pushing kids out of their norm," Mallaro said. "This is a good thing as students will be challenged, but also there is more one-to-one attention, which in turn will open more doors moving on to the collegiate level."
Most likely if a kid is struggling in his or her current academic situation, prep school will be a real difficult adjustment academically if he or she can actually get accepted in the first place. Of course, there are all sorts of schools with different requirements and standards – and being a strong athlete can open some doors that might otherwise be closed – but if the player isn’t a great student now, for what prep school would cost, it would be a great idea to thoroughly investigate the types of academic support services and other resources would available to help with what will be a challenging academic transition no matter what.
Players will have to maintain a certain level of academic performance to be eligible for hockey, and if the hockey situation doesn’t pan out, will he or she be willing and able to maintain academic focus?
"It's similar to when kids have raw abilities or raw talent," Matarazzo said. "You have kids with raw talent, but it needs to be structured and it needs to be molded. Some kids are really smart at a really young age, and they coume out of eighth grade and do really well on some SSAT or standardized test so that they can get into prep school. They get to school and realize they've never been hit with a workload so hard or been asked to study so much. They've never had to push themselves so hard. They're going to get homesick; I think every kid does. It builds. That pressure and anxiety build up, which also can come out on the ice in a negative way."
Is the family emotionally prepared for a child to leave home?
This is another important question. Just because a kid seems ready to move on, how are the parents going to handle the situation?
Looking back, I would not have wanted to miss out on most or all of my son’s teenage years and all the wonderful memories and accomplishments that our family was able to share with him. Not every family dynamic is the same, though, so this is something each individual family has to figure out.
If parents do agree to let a child move away, they have to be ready to let go to some degree. The child is going to have to grow up in a hurry and learn to interact on his or her own with strangers and adults and be willing to ask a lot of questions, seek help and advocate for his or herself.
Can the family afford for the player to leave home for any opportunity?
Moving away for school and/or hockey is a substantial financial investment no matter what.
"Although many families will do it for their kids, families really shouldn't over-extend themselves financally to send a kid to prep school," Matarazzo said. "Did the finanical aid package come back, and is it putting you in a position to say yes? Is your kid getting a better bang for his buck? Are you getting a better education for your money? Is it really worth $65,000 per year compared to what you are paying now, which may be zero?"
Keeping in mind that the likelihood of getting repaid a little bit on the back end with a full athletic scholarship from a Division I hockey program is very low (D1 programs have 18 full scholarships to distribute among 30 players), what is the family able and willing to pay and sacrifice to provide this opportunity?
If a kid attends a respected prep school, does well academically and achieves high placement test scores, that could open up the possibility of academic scholarship money that previously may not have been accessible. Regardless, the expenses don’t end after youth hockey or prep school, and most families can bank on having to pay a minimum of about $35,000 per year for college even if a substantial amount of academic aid is awarded.
"It is a big financial commitment for all those involved," Troy said. "Understanding that even if you qualify for financial aid, you may not receive the funding desired is important."
Has the player been actively recruited by one of the coaches?
This doesn’t mean that he or she reached out and scheduled a school or hockey facility visit and that the coach was around to say hello. This means that the coach has seen the kid play and continued to reach out to the player after seeing him or her play in person or on video.
"If the coach is in constant communication with you and has your best interest in mind, then they are interested," Mallaro said. "If a coach is talking to you about more than just the hockey program – things like what is the school like, what kind of community is it, where do most kids end up after they leave. And also, as I mentioned before, is he answering the tough questions? Don't be afraid to ask a coach where you fit in their incoming class. There has to be a relationship before you decide to attend somewhere. The coach should let you know there are going to be challenges, because everything isn't going to go smooth; that is part of the process, and honesty goes a long way."
Many prep, AAA and junior coaches will see a kid play a time or two and encourage him or her to apply to school or attend tryouts. This simply means that the coach thinks there may be a future for the player, but that he or she likely isn’t a top recruit and would have to walk on to the team or earn a spot on a AAA or junior team by trying out.
Continued correspondence from a coach and a player actually being offered a spot on a team constitutes being recruited. If a player isn’t being actively recruited, there is a good chance he or she might end up on a Varsity 2 or JV team at a prep school or not make the preferred AAA or junior team under an organization’s umbrella.
"Players and families will know how interested coaches are by how many points of contact they have with you," Troy said. "Keep in mind that coaches are often involved with other aspects of schooll, so they may not be able to come see you in person and that doesn't mean they aren't as interested as some others. Same goes for if they do come to a game or two; they may not be as interested as you may think. Healthy dialogue with the coach is crucial. Ask questions about where you may fit or their plans for your future."
What is the hockey opportunity?
Is the player being actively recruited and offered a spot on the varsity, the organization’s highest AAA team or the organization’s top junior team?
While there are very few real guarantees, if a prep school coach tells a player that he or she is one of the preferred recruits and will be on the varsity, that’s about the best show vote of confidence a prospect can hope for. This means that the player will start the season practicing with varsity and on the varsity roster. The player will have a leg up on any walk-ons trying out and will have a spot on the team to lose, but remember that there really are no guarantees with hockey. If a player shows up and is given every opportunity to contribute on an organization’s top team and can’t cut it, he or she will end up out of the lineup or shuffled off to another lower-level team.
Ask for as much feedback from a coach as possible and do as much homework on the program and organization as possible. There are way too many stories of kids heading off to prep schools and never seeing the light of day on the varsity or not getting to play for an organization’s top junior or AAA team. Situations that don’t pan out hockey-wise can turn into a disaster on all levels very quickly.
Another concern for players looking to attend prep schools is the overall amount of ice time that will be available before, during and after the season and what – if any – connections or requirements does the coach have when it comes to playing for split-season teams.
New England Prep schools usually start with practices and games in November, with the regular season running through February and playoffs in March. Most teams play between 25 and 30 games, which isn’t nearly as many as top AAA programs, but they are on the ice practicing twice as often as they are playing games.
To supplement game play, most prep school players play for split-season AAA teams that compete in the top New England fall showcases. This provides more opportunities to skate against high-level opponents and get seen by college and junior coaches and scouts.
Some prep school coaches have ongoing relationships with strong split-season programs, while others don’t get involved and leave players on their own to find teams. Transportation to and from events also may not be provided.
It is extremely important to understand all of these details before deciding what prep school program is the right fit.
Also important as part of the hockey-vetting process is for players to interact directly with a team’s or organization’s coaches and to get a feel for their personalities and if they would like playing for those particular coaches. Doing homework by watching a team’s past games on video, discussing styles of play with the coaches and reaching out to other players from the team or organization also can be extremely beneficial.
Not all players are a fit for every coach, so it is important to learn as much as you can about the people a player might be playing for and their preferred style of play.
"Every year is different with when it comes to filling roster spots," Troy said. "There are so many factors that come into play. Graduation and players leaving school can be a hurdle, but we do our best to maintain a healthy influx of student-athletes who meet our school's mission. We have a number of students every year who make the jump from our second team to our Varsity A team and make an impact right away. We hold a week-long tryout at the beginning of every year so players can be evaluted fairly, and we know that offseason training and natural growth happens at different paces."
For players looking at AAA or junior programs, what is the educational component?
If a player wants to leave the area to pursue AAA or junior hockey before high school graduation, understanding the educational opportunities afforded by that program is essential – especially if playing NCAA hockey at a strong academic institution is the ultimate goal.
It is more common these days for programs to offer a hockey “academy” opportunity that includes enrollment at an actual bricks-and-mortar school as part of the program and expense. Like prep schools, this option is not cheap, but it generally does provide a large amount of ice time and other hockey development opportunities along with a solid educational experience. Some programs set up classroom times for players to take online classes while providing professors, tutors and academic advisors as resources to emphasize the importance of education and help players have a positive academic experience.
Asking questions about any online schooling that a program makes available and investigating that online program’s level of credibility with the NCAA – as well as top colleges – is important for kids who have lofty academic goals.
Some teams will allow players to seek out their own online schooling opportunities so they can find something that suits their needs and their family’s requirements. Often these organizations still will provide academic support staff as well as classroom, study hall and advising hours for their players. And depending on a player’s current school or school district, it can be possible to talk to a player’s school about finding an online academic program that will allow him or her to actually come back and attend school after the season and continue progressing toward graduating from that school with the ultimate goal of participating in graduation ceremonies with his or her class.
For players looking at AAA or junior programs, what is the housing situation and cost?
If players have not graduated from high school, a billet situation that provides structure and some level of family support is advised. There are far too many horror stories about teams that have set up “hockey houses” for several team members to live in that are supposed to be supervised and maintained by young and most likely underpaid coaches.
Once players are out of high school, living with teammates in an apartment setting is much more palatable. Younger players away from home for the first time are more likely to thrive in a situation that is similar to what they are used to.
Most teams charge between $400 and $500 per month for room and board. Like anything, it is recommended that players talk in detail with coaches about the housing situation and seek out former players for information as well. Billeting sounds great, but there can be bad matches and nightmare billet situations.
What is a school or organization’s reputation for moving players on to higher levels?
Some of this information is readily available on school or organizational websites, but as with any type of promotional or marketing material, successes can be exaggerated. The best way to find out how many players from a particular program are moving on to higher levels is to go to junior and NCAA college websites and check current hockey rosters.
There are helpful documents such as these that are available online as well:
"Playing varsity at a prep school only increases a player's chances of developing into an NCAA player and student," Troy said. "Prep schools provide an amazing opportunity to play a high level of hockey with a strong academic piece to go along with it. You'll be playing against some of the top talent from around the world and going to school where the academics are challenging. There are so many positives to attending prep school; you just need to take advantage of them."
Is hockey or school the top priority?
Getting a good education should always be the primary consideration for all decisions relating to playing hockey beyond the high school and youth levels.
Playing NCAA Division I hockey and making any sort of living playing professional hockey simply won’t be option for 99-plus percent of the young hockey players coming out of many non-traditional markets. That doesn’t mean that these young athletes can’t continue to play the game at a very high level and have an amazing and professionally beneficial college experience at the same time.
At some point, hockey as a focal point of a young person’s life will end, and having a solid education and college degree to fall back on and use to start building a professional life and make a living will become essential. For some young athletes, hockey can be a means to open academic doors and create opportunities that might not have otherwise existed, while for others a history of strong academic performance can open hockey doors and create opportunities that might not have presented themselves otherwise.
Striking a balance and putting in the necessary work on and off the ice are essential to a young player’s chances of achieving his or her academic and athletic goals. Eventually every young athlete will reach a crossroads, and decisions will have to be made.
Perhaps the college a player really wants to attend doesn’t have a spot available on its NCAA varsity team, but has a club program that will provide a high enough level of play to give him or her the desired combination of hockey and academics.
Maybe a player can’t get into his or her preferred college or can’t play NCAA hockey there, but has found an NCAA opportunity at another school in a great location that offers a strong program of study in a desired field.
And maybe a player really wants the big-time, state-school Division I athletic and academic experience, but can’t play varsity hockey at that type of school. A young athlete choosing to attend a school he or she really wants to go to is never a bad decision, and having the ability to play non-varsity hockey can be a great bonus and supplement to the overall college experience.
No matter how you slice it, it’s a long journey with a ton of twists, turns and surprises and very few guarantees. The key is for a player to do everything in his or her power – with family guidance – to continually put him or herself in the best available situation that will allow for continued progress toward that individual’s personal goals.
And remember, nothing is guaranteed.
Doing the necessary homework, asking questions and seeking advice and feedback from knowledgeable and experienced people always can increase the odds of making the best possible decisions.