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Believe It or Not It's Tryout Time Again

By Scott Lowe – MYHockeyRankings.com

It’s been a very challenging year for youth hockey players and programs throughout North America. Looking back to this time last year I remember hoping that some positives might come out of the coronavirus shutdown. Perhaps the hockey community could pause, take a deep breath and survey the state of the game at the developmental levels, I thought.

One of the positive changes that I hoped might come out of the situation had to do with tryouts.

Pushing tryouts back into the summer might not be the worst thing for a sport that never gives its more elite players a break, a sport in which its highest-level youth teams form their rosters five months prior to the beginning of the next season and immediately after what can be a grueling six-month slate of games that includes tons of travel.

Personally, I’ve never understood the point of picking a team filled with developing young men or women who might grow six inches and gain 20 pounds from the time tryouts are held until the first puck is dropped on the following season. On top of that, as the kids move into their teens and status becomes as important to them as it is to their parents, as their own personal egos develop and as they formulate their future hockey goals, they often can’t even enjoy the last three months of their season.

Starting around the first of the year, locker-room talk among the players turns to next season. Trust me, I’ve been there – first with my own son as he progressed up the youth hockey ladder toward a career at the NCAA Division III level and now with other young players who I try to help navigate that process for themselves and avoid the mistakes we made.

This kid is going to prep school, that kid didn’t get any prep school offers, the other kid couldn’t get into prep schools, another kid already is getting AAA contract offers and still another is going to get tendered or drafted by this or that junior team. These are things you might hear. Kids are going to talk. Parents are going to brag. You and your child are going to hear about every mass email and camp or tryout “invitation” that his or her teammates receive.

Kids, who are insecure by nature and looking for acceptance and approval, turn those invitations, which go out to hundreds of young players often without any vetting, into locker-room statements that indicate they are being recruited or are definitely going to play for one of those teams or already have an offer. Those comments, often more hyperbole than fact, set off a domino effect in the locker room that unnecessarily ramps up the stress level among players and families and can take much of the joy out of the sport for everyone involved.

I’ve had families come to me in a panic as early as mid-January wondering why other kids are getting contract offers and opportunities for the following year while their child isn’t. If you rewind the clock by 12 months and reflect back, think about all the things you were hearing then and compare them to today’s reality. How many of the rumors and stories came to fruition? Maybe one or two of them did, but probably not. It’s also for kids and families to focus on THEIR situations and what’s best for them instead of worrying about what teammates are doing or comparing themselves to others.

Because teams are selected earlier and earlier every year and because many kids and parents like to talk and pound their chests, the joy is taken out of the sport for too many young players as they start to worry about who is watching them, why they aren’t playing more or in certain situations and when they will start receiving offers for the following season. These are still kids, and the sport MUST continue to be fun for them above all else or they are going to throw in the towel long before reaching their goals. A player who is uptight and not enjoying the game also isn’t going to play up to his or her potential or show well for scouts anyway, so all of this unnecessary added pressure creates a vicious cycle that often leads to frustration and ultimately anger.

The process of selecting teams so close to the end of the season only enhances this stress and isn’t particularly healthy. For teams that play deep into March or April and advance to state-, district- or national-championship tournaments, tryouts for the following year literally begin a week or less after their seasons ends. Others are encouraged to go to “tune-up” skates so that they can stay sharp for tryouts that start a few weeks later.

Stay sharp? They just played for six months. Their bodies are probably a little beaten up and worn down, and they are probably in need of a physical, mental and emotional break from the sport. Instead, we are asking them to keep going or ramp it up for tryouts immediately after the grind of their marathon seasons conclude.

This isn’t healthy. Everyone needs a break, even the top players in the world – mentally and physically.

It was my hope that tryouts being pushed back last year might open some eyes and allow coaches, parents and administrators to see that taking a break is a good thing and that it makes very little sense to hold tryouts immediately after the season has ended. Coaches have just seen their players compete for six months and have very strong opinions as to their abilities and future potential.

Some of these opinions probably are accurate, while others may be skewed and clouded by things that happened during the season. It can be as beneficial for the coaches as it is for the players to step away and not see the kids for a little while. You will be very surprised how different kids look and how much they mature physically and emotionally when you aren’t around them for a few months. It also will be amazing to see the increased energy, enthusiasm and pace the kids bring to the ice after some time to rest and recover.

Similarly, a player who may be interested in playing on a new team who a coach has seen play at one time or another might be an entirely different player a few months after the season. That player is likely to be bigger, faster and stronger and might surpass some of the players from the previous year’s team and deserve serious consideration to be on the roster.

Isn’t the point of tryouts supposed to be to see players at their best and make the best-possible decisions?

For all of these reasons and probably more, pushing tryouts back every year makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately the quest to get the players who are thought to be the best to commit quickly as well as the thirst to fill rosters and get money in the bank always seems to outweigh what’s best for the kids. This is youth sports 2021; hockey is not alone.

So even though many tryouts were held much later than usual last year – and everything worked out just fine – you’ve probably already noticed advertisements for Tier 1 tryouts that begin as soon as this week. USA Hockey Nationals have been pushed back, so you’d think that we could at least wait until May 1 to start the tryout process. Nope. It’s already begun, and whether it’s permitted or not, contracts already have been offered.

With that in mind and with tryouts already getting underway, there are some important considerations as young players look for a new home or strive to play at a higher level next season.

At some point in a young player’s hockey career, the letters change from AA and AAA to USHL, CHL, BCHL, NAHL, NCDC, OJHL, CCHL, AJHL, MJHL, SJHL, EHL, etc. when the players start looking their various options. When it comes to hockey, the alphabet letters always seem to be there, and unfortunately too often parents and players get caught up in what I like to call “alphabet soup” – being more concerned about what level their team is instead of focusing on enjoying the experience, improving and getting quality coaching.

The first thing to understand about hockey is that for most mere mortals – and by most we are talking about at least 90 percent of the players with a realistic shot at progressing to the NCAA level – the recruiting process starts much later than in other sports.

Depending on whose numbers you use, somewhere between 86 and 90 percent of all men’s NCAA college hockey players play some level of junior hockey AFTER graduating from high school, with the vast majority entering college at age 20 or 21. This is true at all levels of NCAA play – Division I, II and III. 

Of course, there are always outliers making verbal commitments at age 15 or 16. These tend to be precocious stud athletes who are projected to be national-team level players, future NHL draft picks or top-tier Division I prospects. But according to a College Hockey, Inc. study for 2018-19, “The average age that a Division I player committed to school is 18.9 …”

Thus, the average player is committing AFTER high-school graduation at the Division I level. The commitment age is even higher at the D3 level as the teams wait longer to see which kids don’t pan out at the highest level and filter down to them – or to see which commitments fall through.

The bottom line is that the super-young commits are few and far between (like 14 percent are 17 or younger, according to the study), and many hockey people question the wisdom of players who commit too young as well as teams that encourage those commitments. It’s more and more common these days for players to “de-commit” and change their minds or to be “de-committed” by schools for various reasons.

Does a 15-year-old kid really know what he or she wants to study in college or do for a career? If the player is not going to be attending school for five or six years, what other factors might come into play during that time period that cause him or her to change their mind about the school they would like to attend? What will the composition of the team be by the time the school is ready to take the player? Will the same coaching staff even be there, and if not, will the new coaches still want the player? What if the kid doesn’t develop physically or hockey-wise as expected and the program drops its commitment? 

And even though they have committed, it doesn’t mean that these players are going straight from high school to college. Most early commits still will be placed in a junior league, most likely the USHL but also possibly the NAHL or NCDC, even though they committed very early.

So, while the kid who commits early and his parents might revel in the old “I want to thank everybody along the way who helped me realize my dream” social media post and love wearing their Michigan, Boston College or Minnesota gear to school and the rink, for those players there still are a ton of unknowns and an incredible amount of hard work and development – on and off the ice – that have to take place for the commitment to actually be fulfilled.

Nothing in hockey is guaranteed.

So, for parents of younger players – and maturing players in their early teens – instead of pushing your kids to the next-highest level as quickly as possible, take a step back and look at the larger picture.

Kids around the age of 11 or younger are probably dreaming of playing professional hockey. The college dream likely belongs to the parents at that point. Some kids will see college games on television or attend a local team’s games and figure out that they probably have to play in college before getting to the NHL, but in general if you ask kids at that age what their goals are, the answer is likely going to be, “To play for the (insert local NHL team).”

And there’s nothing wrong with that. We all had dreams as kids, and as parents we want nothing more than to do all that we can to help our kids realize those dreams. But one thing that we should be aware of is that for them to achieve their dreams they are going to have to fall in love with what they are pursuing. No one is going to put in the type of work or make the commitment or sacrifices necessary to realize their athletic dreams if they don’t truly love the sport.

Pushing players into AAA hockey with 70-plus games a year, tons of travel, off-season commitments and extended time away from their friends before they are truly ready for that type of commitment by no means gives them an advantage or guarantees future advancement. Most college coaches will tell you that they prefer well-rounded athletes who have played multiple sports, and that type of demanding schedule is probably more likely to lead to burnout within a few years than to produce a college scholarship (How Much is Too Much?).

What causes a kid to fall in love with a sport? Many studies cite that most young athletes play sports because they are fun. That seems easy enough, but what is fun to a kid? What makes one sport more enjoyable than another?

Playing and competing with friends and being part of a team. Being successful. Scoring goals. Cool equipment, gear and uniforms. Playing against kids from other parts of town or other areas. Improving. 

These are all things we might hear young athletes say when asked what makes hockey fun. They play sports because they are enjoyable and can fall in love with a sport as long as it remains fun, they are improving and they are realizing some level of success. They stop playing when it ceases being fun, which also can be for any number of reasons including practices that are too demanding and don’t focus on the aspects of the game they enjoy, schedules that take too much time away from their friends, a lack of individual progress or success, coaches who are too serious or perceived as mean, politics and unfair treatment.

Certainly there are young hockey players who are genetically gifted, advance more quickly than their peers, want to be on the ice as much as possible and are incredibly driven internally without little or any pushing from parents. By all means give these kids what they crave and get them in the highest-level program you can afford. These situations are the exception and not the norm, however. 

It is infinitely more likely that players who continue to play with their buddies for several years, keep improving as the group improves and experience incremental individual and team success will fall in love with the game than players whose parents push them into higher levels. How many kids are going to enjoy constantly competing against unfamiliar and better players every year while trying to make an impression on more demanding coaches who may already have built-in loyalties to other players and who may not believe in equal playing time for everyone?  

And that’s without considering the possibility that there may be more practices, more travel and more out-of-season commitments – not to mention the additional financial burden that generally comes with higher-level hockey. The commitment needs to work for the entire family or else the situation will become stressful, which also can take away from a kid’s love of the sport.

As long as the child’s program has a credible coach who has the kids’ best interest at heart, gives the kids equal opportunities to play in enough situations that they continue to grow as players and you can see both the child and the team continuing to progress – and he or she continues to look forward to practices, games and other team functions – it’s probably a pretty good spot.

If there is a desire on the player’s part to be on the ice more, hopefully the club provides skills clinics, small-games sessions or other opportunities for the child to explore new aspects of the sport. If not, there are always summer camps that give young players the opportunity to get on the ice and improve without making a huge 10- or 12-month commitment.

Pushing young players into a higher-level program at a younger age may lead to a situation where they go from being a key part of a team to someone who has to give every ounce of energy whenever they are on the ice just to get a regular shift. That type of situation certainly does not foster a love for the spot.

At some point, if players continue to improve and enjoy the process of getting better and becoming a top player on the team, they may ask for more. This might happen at age 10 or 12 or not until age 15 – or it might never happen at all. Just make sure that it’s the kid driving the boat and not parental pressure or else the minute the first signs of adversity set in there will be a family crisis.

My son told me when he was 15 that he wanted to play college hockey. I remember it very clearly. I asked him why and he replied, “because it looks like it would be a lot of fun.” This came at a developmental showcase he attended the year after he decided he was ready to move from A to AA hockey.

He was an invited participant in an event that included a lot of other really good – and older – players and was doing well enough for us both to think he might have a future in the sport. Part of the program included a presentation on college hockey by College Hockey, Inc. (a tremendous resource that all young players and their families should become familiar with), and he was sold immediately. He embraced the dream and was willing to do whatever it took to get there, because he had developed a love for the game and a thirst to keep improving.

My son never played above “A” level hockey until he was 15. He tried out for and made a “AA” team the year before when a couple of his friends decided to move up a level. I thought it would be good for him to challenge himself, but he told me he wanted to play with his buddies one more year and then he would be ready to move up. That year he scored well over 100 points, was named the club’s player of the year and knew it was time to take the next step.

He played three years of AA and started to draw interest from college and junior coaches, but he wanted to stay home through high school graduation. His second year of 18U was his first AAA season, and he was named captain and led his league in scoring. He was drafted by teams in the NAHL and NCDC, played two years in the NCDC and is now a sophomore playing NCAA D3 hockey – and in a key role – for Suffolk University in Boston.

We didn’t rush the process. He made every decision along the way. I didn’t always agree with his decisions, but they were his. He had to own them, and because of that I never would have to worry about him complaining to me and telling me that I forced him to do something he didn’t want to do. 

The first year of AA there were times early in the season that he got benched, but he dealt with it and worked his way up the lineup to become the team’s leading scorer and MVP. He captained that team for two years, went to nationals three times and loved the players and coaches. But he knew he had to take his game to another level to accomplish his goals and play in college, so it was his decision to move to AAA as a second-year 18U 

He chose where he wanted to play juniors and chose to stick it out when he got scratched five straight games early in his first season. Instead of giving up, complaining or asking for a trade he worked harder and became more determined. He survived two years at the Tier 2 level, became a top-six forward the second half of his age-out year and realized his dream by committing to Suffolk last March. If he didn’t truly love the sport, I’m sure he would have thrown in the towel at some point during his first year of juniors.  

Even at that level, he dealt with politics, unfair treatment, lies and other things that were frustrating to me as a parent, but served as motivation for him.

I don’t tell this story to brag, although I am very proud. Last year when he got to college, I was just hoping he could play regularly, so to see all the years of hard work and sacrifice pay off makes me so happy for him. And it’s a joy to know the pressure is off now and he can just relax and play confidently.

My reason for relaying his story is to help others understand that there is no need to rush. As young hockey players reach their early teens there may be pressure to leave home for top AAA or prep-school programs. For some kids who are mature enough emotionally and are strong enough academically and hockey-wise, these can be tremendous opportunities.

For others, though, leaving home too early can be a disaster. Maybe hockey doesn’t go well and then school suffers and a whole year ends up being wasted, or maybe the player quits the sport altogether. Everyone’s path is different, and everyone matures on and off the ice at different rates. As parents, the only thing we can do is provide all the information we can to help the kids make the best decision for them and do our best to guide them.

For parents trying to provide the best possible guidance it’s important for us to understand a few things.

In most instances, playing for a good coach, getting an opportunity to play in all situations and developing all the requisite skills that go along with those opportunities – while also developing a more complete understanding of the game – is much better for a player’s overall development and progress toward achieving his or her goals than rushing to play at a level for which the player might not be fully prepared.

Why run off to prep school too soon when you might get stuck on a second varsity or junior varsity team instead of getting to be a key player for your local AA or AAA team? Similarly, why rush into a bottom-six role on a AAA team when you can be a top player on your current AA team? And why jump from 18U AA or AAA to juniors when you have another year of 18U left and aren’t as mature physically or emotionally as the players you will be competing against – and might end up injured or scratched and in the bleachers watching a good portion of time?

Too many times we get caught up in the letters of the alphabet instead of, just like when we should have done when our kids were young, taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture

This can be a very stressful time of year for players and families alike. Just try to avoid playing the alphabet game. Parents should help their kids find the path that is truly best for them. Look for a situation that they will enjoy and will help them progress toward their goals. It will be eye opening for most people to see how much farther players from families who adopt this approach tend to advance than the ones who try to speed up the process by forcing something that is neither enjoyable nor necessary for a young player.

In hockey, there are no shortcuts. In hockey, there are no guarantees. It’s a long and winding road, so why not make sure that the experience is enjoyable instead of adding unnecessary stress and tension?

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