A Different Perspective on Junior Tryout Camps
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
If you ask multiple people to describe a junior hockey main camp, you’re likely to get a variety of answers.
Many will call it a “money grab.” Some might say main camps are a great experience that helps hockey players develop and understand what areas of their games they need to improve upon to get to a particular level. And those behind the scenes running the camps are likely to say they are an essential part of the process for selecting their teams.
All of those statements can be true, and like so many things in life, a main camp is what the player makes of it.
“A lot of people will say that predraft or main camps are ‘money grabs,’” said Bryan Erikson, who has served as a coach and general manager at the Tier 2 and Tier 3 junior levels with the Northeast Generals. “That isn’t a wild opinion, but it really depends on your objectives at the camp. If your only objective is to come from public high school or from a Tier 3 program where you had minimal success and then make the NAHL team, then for sure these camps are ‘money grabs.’ But if your mindset is to come in see how you stack up; get feedback from coaches; absorb the level of play, the coaching and everything else; then you are getting more than your money’s worth."
Erikson and others in charge of camp operations also will tell you that main camps are important to generate revenue that helps them run competitive programs and allows them to be tuition free. All you have to do is ask. They don’t run and hide from that question.
Aha! So main camps are a money grab!
Not so fast.
Coaches and general managers of junior teams can understand how some players and their families might walk away feeling like they wasted their money when a kid between the ages of 15 and 19 shows up for a few days, plays a bunch of games and learns from looking at a sheet of paper posted in a locker room or a roster posted online that he’s not good enough to play at that level. For many players – especially older players who hop from camp to camp without being drafted or tendered in hopes of defying the odds and making a Tier 1 or Tier 2 team – the whole process can seem like a scam.
Of course, there are many junior teams out there running camps that bring In hundreds of kids who have no chance of playing at their level to help improve the organization’s financial situation. It seems easy enough to avoid those situations, however, if players just take a little time to do research instead of running around telling everyone how many main camps they got “invited” to and throwing money at them without investigating or asking questions.
The truth is that attending a main camp can be a valuable, productive experience where lessons can be learned and relationships can be built that ultimately may help a player achieve his long-term hockey goals. As Erikson said, however, if players don’t approach the process the right way, the experience no doubt is going to seem like a waste of time and money.
And yet many of the players who complain loudest keep going back for more. They keep chasing the dream despite getting feedback from several programs that they aren’t capable of playing at that level.
At some point, part of the development process should include making peace with that feedback and finding a reputable program that moves players to higher levels and has a coach who fits your style and will offer a playing opportunity that will maximize your chances of one day playing at the highest level you can achieve.
Getting third-party, unbiased feedback about where they stand and what they need to work on is essential for young hockey players to grow and develop. Not accepting that feedback or only accepting it when it is what you want to hear, however, is a pattern of behavior that is seen frequently in the hockey world and can be destructive.
People say they want feedback, but then when they get a legitimate opinion from a qualified person that isn’t what they wanted to hear they often get angry or say that the coach or scout doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
My son currently plays NCAA Division III hockey for Suffolk University in Boston. Like every player, of course he wanted to be a Division I player, and as someone who was drafted by teams in both United States Tier 2 junior leagues, he got very close. When you look around and realize that there are only 150 or so NCAA varsity hockey programs, though, for him coming from a non-traditional hockey market like Maryland, to advance to that level is a tremendous accomplishment.
There were a few turning points in his career that propelled him toward that level. Each one of them involved third-party feedback – some of which he probably didn’t want to hear – that he used of motivation instead of sulking and discrediting the source.
When he was 14, some of his friends began trying out for AA teams for the first time. He went along to tryouts with them and clearly was one of the best players on the ice trying to make a AA team at a new club. It wasn’t close. He was among the top five, if not the top three. He got cut.
It was probably political in nature – and he handled it much better than I did – but he immediately went to tryouts for another AA team, made that team to prove he could play at that level and ultimately decided to stay with his club for one more year. He attended several camps over the summer to get better and proceeded to score more than 100 points to earn club player-of-the-year honors.
The following spring he went out and made the midget team for the club that had cut him and ultimately became the leading scorer and captain on a team that made nationals every year and actually won the regular-season championship in a league that had mostly AAA teams.
A couple years later my son was starting to get interest from various AAA, prep school and junior programs in New England. He played in a showcase with one of the teams that was recruiting him and sat down with the coach after the tournament for feedback. The coach told him that everyone knew he had skill and could put the puck in the net, but there were questions about the rest of his game in terms of buying in defensively and backchecking.
He had a similar conversation with a local NCAA Division III coach. “We know you have the skill to play at this level, but I need to see you play like a third- and fourth-line player,” the coach told him. “We need to know that you are willing and able to play a 200-foot game, because every player at our level has a ton of skill and is really good.”
Both times you could see by the look on his face that he was a little taken back and maybe not thrilled at what he was hearing, but from that point on you could see that he was focused on becoming that player. His defense improved, and probably most important, his compete level soared.
Those conversations, along with his coachability and willingness to do whatever his coaches asked of him, ultimately got him into the lineup for every game as a college freshman.
“I never would have thought that I would like blocking shots,” he told a group of my players at a recent showcase. “But it’s become one of my favorite things. I love blocking shots, and if I can tell you one thing to help you, the easiest way to get into the lineup and win the trust of your coach is by becoming a really good penalty killer.”
A main-camp experience can be extremely valuable if you interact with the coaching staff and use the feedback they give you in a positive manner – the way my son did – to become a better player instead of just showing up, playing and leaving angry when you don’t make a team, play in an all-star game or hear what you want from the coaches.
There is little doubt the organizations running huge camps with enough players to fill 12 or more teams and in which the returning players and draft picks don’t show up and compete until most attending players are sent home are in it as much for the money as they are to assemble the best team possible.
Doing some simple math gives you an idea of the potential financial windfall associated with main camps: 160 to 200 players times $300 per kid times two predraft or open camps plus one main camp. You’re looking at between $144,000 and $180,000 in top-line revenue. Not a bad take for maybe a week’s worth of work, huh?
There definitely are organizations that prey upon the unrealistic hopes and dreams of kids who don’t take the time to understand the process, understand the incredible odds against them making a team as an undrafted or untendered player and who think that many years of AAA hockey entitles them to something or guarantees them a spot in a tuition-free league.
The key, as with everything when it comes to figuring out your personal pathway toward college hockey, is to do your homework, build relationships and communicate. Stay away from the actual money grabs and always try to maximize your odds of being successful or attending a camp that is likely to help you in your quest to achieve your hockey goals.
Many people who considered themselves experts because their kids kept getting cut while they kept writing checks told us to stay away from predraft camps. If my son hadn’t attended predraft camps he likely wouldn’t have been drafted. They are especially important for kids who don’t play on teams or in areas that get scouted frequently.
After jumping from AA to AAA my son led the AYHL in scoring as a second-year 18U player skating for Team Maryland. That team played in a New England-based league in addition to the AYHL, so he got seen playing against good competition in the Northeast several times during the year. He also was selected to play in the All-Star game for that league. So, while he had built a very impressive resume, outside of the Northeast he was essentially an unknown quantity.
So, we got to work, scouring every Tier 2 roster in the country to determine which teams were losing the most forwards and presented the best opportunity. He emailed the coaches of the teams we thought he might have the best chance of making, attached his hockey resume and sent video. Several coaches talked to their regional scouts, found out that he was a legit prospect and responded.
“I’m being told that I should draft you, but my owner will kill me if I don’t see you in person first,” was one response, directly from the head coach. “Can you come to our predraft camp?”
That, folks, is an invitation.
He attended two NAHL predraft camps for teams that seemed most interested and two similar NCDC camps. We felt confident he was on their draft boards and kept the lines of communication open. He got drafted by teams in both leagues and got texts from the teams that didn’t get a chance to select him wishing him well and telling them that he had been on their list to get selected.
For me, the predraft camp myth had been debunked, but the real lesson here is that this type of approach is important to follow for any junior camp you are going to attend. You have to stand out – on and off the ice – and separate yourself from the others, including any returning players. This is best done by building a relationship in advance so that they look at you specifically, going out of your way to introduce yourself and interact with coaches during camp and following up with staff members once the camp is done.
“The disappointment usually comes from the kids that think they are good enough,” Erikson said. “Well, you need to separate yourself. You need to be better than the player next to you; everything comes down to tie-breakers – and that is true in life with college and jobs. You need to separate yourself from your competition. Obviously, you need to produce, but also we are looking for kids who block shots, cheer for their teammates, backcheck, ask good questions – don’t just ask a million questions so a coach notices you; ask intelligent questions – and do the little things. We notice everything. You need to be better than the kids we have watched over and over since we know what they can be on their best day and on their worst day. When a player we don’t know comes in, he has to stand out every game – not for a few shifts, but do something to stand out on every shift.”
Many kids come back from camps and say, “Camp went great; I scored a bunch of goals. I definitely was one of the best players, but I didn’t make the all-star game. I don’t know what they were looking at. It was a joke."
There are so many things to unravel here. These are standard responses that indicate a total lack of understanding of the situation.
First, it’s always the team's or the coach’s fault. A victim’s mentality seems to prevail in the youth hockey world.
Second, your being able to stand near the crease tapping in rebounds doesn’t mean anything to higher-level coaches. It’s not about goals or points unless that production comes within the context of playing the full 200-foot game they want and need to see.
Did you compete your hardest on every shift? Did you backcheck on every shift? Did you block shots? Did you move the puck to open teammates? Did you move your feet through contact, on the forecheck and in the neutral zone? Were you good on the bench? Did you communicate with your teammates and the coaches? How was your body language?
Third, if you’re attending a very large camp then most likely you were competing against no – or very few – players who have ever played at the Tier 1 or Tier 2 level. For big camps run by teams that don’t limit or restrict registrations, it’s likely that you played against similar-level AAA kids, Tier 3 junior players and others with little or no experience at the highest levels of juniors.
Within that context, did you dominate?
A few goals or points isn’t dominating. Look in the mirror and ask yourself – and be honest – if you were a dominant player in all facets in game. Were you the best on your team? Were you one of the 10-15 best players overall as far as playing the 200-foot game that the level you hope to attain demands?
If you go to one of these bigger camps that brings in returning players and draft picks later in the week after most players are sent home, if you aren’t the best player on your team or one of the top 10-15 in the entire camp – not just the leading scorer – you likely aren’t surviving the first cut. And even if you are, that’s when the reality really sets in.
At that point, if you are lucky enough to survive the first cut, you are soon to be joined by all the returning players, draft picks, tenders and others who already have played at that team’s level. All of those players will be competing with maybe the 15 others who survived to make the 30-man training-camp roster.
Another NAHL executive said that most years his team will have 14-15 returning players, 7-10 tenders and 6-7 draft picks who are the preferred players coming to main camp. That gets the team to at least the 30 players they need for training camp. Those players come to camp with an advantage over everyone else because they have played many games for the organization, or the organization has seen them play frequently in competitive situations and likely used an asset to acquire their rights.
This particular organization happens to run a smaller main camp with eight teams, so the returning players get mixed in with the others who are, for the most part, invited. Part of your homework should include finding teams that run their camps in this manner so that you will actually compete against players who already have played at that level, will play against fewer players to make it easier to get noticed and will be more likely to get legitimate feedback about where you stand.
Considering that the 14-15 returning players usually are invited to training camp, that leaves another 15 or so spots up for grabs. Let’s say that five of the draft picks and tenders are absolute locks to make the final 30. That means everyone else is competing for 10 open slots, and that you must be better than those 10 or so remaining preferred players – and pretty much everyone else at camp – during every single session to earn a place among that final 30.
“For our predraft camp, 50 percent are invites and 50 percent are open,” Erikson said. “Our main camp is 100-percent invite only. We will give kids we like and who want the chance to see how they stack up the chance to come to main camp, but I would say that 80 percent are there specifically to compete for a roster spot on this year’s team. Yes, we need to make money on camps, but we also try to give them value for their camp fee. We have coaches, provide feedback and hold exit meetings.
“The battle isn’t really with returners for the most part,” he continued. “Those spots on almost every team are close to secure – a few players may be in danger, and we have cut several at camps – but for the most part the tenders, draft picks and invited players are all playing in the same pond. We are just more familiar with the kids we tendered or drafted, so that is why the others need to stand out.”
Once you make the final 30 for training camp, the journey is still far from complete. At that point, you still must perform well enough at camp and in preseason games to make the final 23-man roster. A large group of players are released to pursue other opportunities throughout the junior hockey world a month into the USHL and NAHL seasons every fall.
The main camp outlook is very similar in the USHL, with some teams running larger camps to bring in more money and others operating smaller camps.
An executive with one team that is running a smaller main camp this year to keep from muddying the waters for a new coach estimates that there are 32 returners and draft picks competing for 30 spots. He projects that there may be 10 actual open spots on the final 30-man roster that the preferred players are competing for along with the other 90-plus skaters in camp.
“We have a good group from the last two drafts as well as our Phase 1 draft picks, and I would like to believe that every player, regardless of age, comes into camp with the mindset of trying to make this team,” the USHL team executive said. “Some of our Phase 1 draft picks, the 2005’s, we know that they are not physically ready yet and are here to see how they measure up and for us to get a look at what they are able to do despite that disadvantage. It’s good for these younger kids to see that just like with college hockey, you can be committed but if you stop working you may never get there. Unfortunately, some draft picks don’t pan out, which is why we have a more targeted approach for our camp. Not everyone gets in; we bring in players who we think can compete and we bring in some to see how they compete above their age group who we might want to monitor going forward.”
For younger players who haven’t been drafted or tendered but aspire to ascend to the Tier 1 or Tier 2 level, a more intimate camp provides a greater opportunity to make a positive impression and to remain on the organization’s radar in the future while discovering what it takes to play at one of those levels. It’s still essential for those players to communicate and build relationships or else they may get lost in the shuffle. The goal should always be to make an impression on and off the ice.
“I would say that I have a spreadsheet with about 80 kids who came to main camp last year that myself and my staff monitor and stay in touch with,” Erikson said. “Sometimes that is for the NAHL team, sometimes for the U18 or the NA3, but we monitor them and see how they develop and if they took the feedback we gave them to improve their games."
Once players begin the process of trying to climb the ladder to Tier 1 and Tier 2 juniors – or to NCAA hockey – and once these relationships begin to take shape, it’s important for the players to remember that you never know who might be watching. If they went about the main-camp process properly, with today’s technology the coaches from that camp are able ability to watch the player play in person or via web streams many times during the course of a season.
Suddenly, that player has a leg up on all the others who attended the camp and didn’t approach it properly. The more often a coach watches a player and sees him progressing, competing on every shift, doing exactly what the coach asked him to do and generally separating himself from others, the more likely that player is to end up on a team’s draft, tender or preferred-player list the following spring.
That relationship can go both ways, too, as coaches need to eliminate players from contention. If they tune in and a player isn’t competing on every shift, playing a 200-foot game or displays poor body language, it’s just as easy to scratch a name off the list and move on to the next.
Main camp is just a small part of the equation as far as who will make a Tier 1 or Tier 2 junior team. Any player who approaches the camp properly can take something positive away from the experience, whether it’s valuable feedback about how to improve, advice about what league or team might be a more appropriate level to help the player achieve his hockey goals or an extended look during the upcoming season for a possible future opportunity.
Hockey is a small world, and a recommendation from a USHL or NAHL coach can go a long way toward helping a player find another great opportunity in one of those leagues, another quality league or at the collegiate level. A coach will not recommend a player he really doesn’t know, however.
“Every year there are players who surprise us,” said the USHL executive. “Maybe they don’t make huge leaps from what you had seen, but they have made considerable improvement from what you expected to see coming into camp. There aren’t many kids at the junior and AAA levels who we don’t have some form of information about. Only about 15 percent of the kids at camp are kids that we really don’t know much about. The majority of those who are invited are NCDC, NAHL and Canadian junior players.”
Still, it seems that many players fall into the familiar trap.
If you just show up to main camp and play, don’t make the effort to get to know anyone and leave without any type of positive interaction with the staff, you’ve literally wasted your money.
If that’s your definition of a “money grab,” then that’s what it is. Just be aware that they’ll be happy to send you an “invitation” to do it all over again the following year, and it’s going to be the same experience unless you go out of your way to make an impression on and off the ice.