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Junior Hockey Drafts Bring Hope, Opportunity and a Challenging Journey

By Scott Lowe - Photo

Every spring and summer hundreds of elite youth hockey players begin the journey toward achieving their hockey goals as North American high-level junior leagues hold their annual drafts. While being drafted or signing a tender agreement in a top-tier league is a tremendous accomplishment that provides a great opportunity for young hockey players, it’s important for them to understand that it doesn’t come with any guarantees.

Whether you are drafted or tendered, you still must make the team – no easy task given the thousands of players from North America and beyond who would give anything to play top-tier junior hockey. And for those players who don’t get drafted or tendered, it’s not the end of their hockey careers. Several United States junior hockey leagues at the Tier 3 level do a great job developing players and moving them on to the NCAA Division III level.     

The North American Hockey League (NAHL), one of two Tier 2 tuition-free leagues in the United States, holds its annual entry draft this week on July 14, while the Tier 1 United States Hockey League (USHL), which also is tuition free, and Tier 2 National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) held their drafts in June.

“The runway is a little bit longer for our tenders and draft picks than it is for the free-agent players who come to our main camp,” said Vincent Montalbano, general manager of the Connecticut Jr. Rangers NCDC team. “There’s no doubt about that. But we put our tenders and draft picks on notice right away that we have a lot of interest in them and really like them as players, but they still have to come in to camp and make the team.”

Everyone’s pathway to college or professional hockey presents its own unique twists and turns with many ups and downs. The process is as daunting as any amusement-park roller coaster you’ll ever encounter, and every year there are stories of players who embrace the opportunity and take the next step toward achieving their hockey goals, players who think they have it made as draft picks or tenders and aren’t prepared to compete for their spots and players who come out of nowhere to make teams.

It is a fact that drafted and tendered players usually have an advantage over the free agents and other invited players attending a team’s main camp. A main camp simply is a team tryout camp held during the summer that is usually attended by between 100 and 175 players – some invited and some who register on their own – looking to earn one of about 30 training-camp invitations. It’s also a fact that in the world of junior hockey there are no guarantees.

“It happened even when I played here in Janesville,” said Lennie Childs, an assistant coach with the Janesville Jets of the Tier 2 NAHL. “I came to main camp and three of the tenders got cut. Being a draft pick or tender doesn’t mean anything if you don’t perform up to our expectations. We only get a certain number of games to watch kids play during the season. We may watch kids play all year and think they will be ready to rock and be good players for us when they get here, but they get to main camp and some of the free agents outplay them and overtake them to the point that it’s a no-brainer for us to keep them instead.”

The bottom line is that wherever you show up to compete for a spot at any level of juniors, if you’re not good enough you either won’t make the team or won’t last very long. And if the coaching staff does think you’re good enough – no matter where you came from – you’ll get an opportunity to prove yourself.

“Main camp is kind of the mid-point of the whole process,” said Montalbano. “When a player who we drafted or tendered leaves main camp, we will let him know that he has X, Y and Z he needs to work on before coming to training camp to be ready to go. We get down from 30 to 23 players by the end of training camp, so seven kids still will be cut. If we feel it wasn’t a great camp for a player that we drafted or tendered, we will let him know that we expected a bit more from him and that when he comes to training camp, we expect him to ramp it up if he’s going to make the team. We tell them that we are taking the 23 best players at training camp no matter what.”

Families who have kids go through the process and experienced the trials and tribulations firsthand can attest that the higher the level gets, the more of a business the sport becomes.

Junior coaches tell kids all the time, “It’s a business,” which never really made sense to me. When my son played in the NCDC I used to look at the business model and joke, “If it’s a business they’d be out of business.” But now that our family has lived through it and I’ve gotten to know many coaches at many levels of junior hockey it makes more sense.

It’s a business for the coaches, the general managers and the owners.

Depending on the organization or the league, the mission of a junior hockey program might be to win; to develop their players and send as many as possible on to higher levels of junior hockey, to play NCAA hockey or to the professional ranks; or both. And while many junior programs look to break even financially and may be supported by tuition fees from their lower-level junior teams and youth programs, it’s no secret that the owners of many USHL and NAHL franchises are looking to make money. 

At the highest levels of junior hockey, winning games helps drive attendance. Better attendance leads to more ticket and sponsorship revenue. And of course, in general winning teams send more players on to the highest levels of college and professional hockey. So, in a sense, many of an organization’s goals are intertwined.

For organizations that don’t rely on ticket or advertising revenue as part of their business models, however, a solid record of player advancement to higher levels often is what attracts the best players and ultimately leads to the development of a winning organization. 

Developing players for the highest levels of hockey when you have 16-year-old kids competing with and against 20-year-old adults, often takes time. There is an adjustment period required for every player who makes the jump from youth to junior hockey. It’s not a small adjustment, either. As with anything, some players make that adjustment much faster than others, while some never make it and are forced to advance their careers while playing at a lower level.

Whatever the model is, though, junior hockey coaches get paid by their owners. They make a living coaching and know what they signed up for, whether it’s to win, develop players and move them on or both. Sometimes the need to be patient with young players and give them time to grow and develop doesn’t mesh with the owner’s desire to win immediately.

Junior hockey coaches come and go regularly; the turnover can be staggering. For them, it truly is a business. It’s their livelihood, so as a player it is important to put yourself in the coach’s shoes and ask, “Would I risk my job and my career on me?” That’s essentially the decision junior coaches make when they select a player for their team.

Keeping that in mind, it’s important for young players to understand that the process of getting to the highest levels of junior hockey can be incredibly grueling both physically and mentally and often doesn’t seem fair. Unfortunately, that’s also how life often works outside of the ice rink as well.

The most important thing to remember, however, is that in hockey there are no guarantees. No matter what someone tells you in a recruiting spiel – and no matter what round you were drafted in, what piece of paper you signed or what coaches recommended you – you must be good enough.

Sometimes a coach or general manager can tell in a few shifts that you aren’t good enough. Sometimes in a short tryout situation players can impress with their energy and compete level and earn a longer look. Sometimes it takes four or six weeks of the season for an organization to figure it out.

At some point, if you aren’t good enough, the opportunity will disappear. That may be in July when you have plenty of time to find a good home for the upcoming season, or it may be in October when everyone’s rosters have been set and the season is in full swing.

“Unfortunately, too many kids attend camps back to back to back to back,” Childs said. “They get cut from one and then immediately want to go skate here or go skate there and end up playing Tier 3 hockey anyway. They spend too much time chasing teams or chasing this level and they lose valuable time when they could be developing and getting ready to have a great year at the Tier 3 or 18U level. Then it’s almost like they are starting all over the next year.”

Whenever the conversation turns to junior hockey, you always hear the terms Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3. In the simplest terms, there are three levels of junior hockey in the United States. Tier 1 and Tier 2 leagues are tuition free, which means most players only are required pay for their personal and/or living expenses.

The only USA Hockey-sanctioned Tier 1 league is the USHL. At the Tier 2 level, the NAHL is the only sanctioned league, while the NCDC is the only other tuition-free circuit in the U.S. and is run by the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL). Tier 3 is “pay-to-play” hockey, which means players are responsible for paying a tuition fee that usually covers their ice time, games, travel, uniforms, workout gear, etc. Those players also must cover the cost of their room and board and other living expenses. Top Tier 3 leagues include the USPL Premier, the Eastern Hockey League (EHL) and the North American Tier 3 Hockey League (NA3HL) 

Drafts are held and tenders can be offered by each of the Tier 1 and 2 leagues. Draft formats and rules differ from league to league, but essentially each league can protect about 30 players who usually are returners, draft picks or tenders. Those are the players, give or take a few, who most often end up going to training camp in September in hopes of making the final 23-man roster.

A tender agreement, on the other hand, is a document signed by a player that makes him the property of the team he signs with in a particular junior league. Teams are limited to the number of tenders they can offer each year, and usually handing out a tender means that they lose a draft pick. A player can tender or be drafted in more than one league but cannot be tendered or drafted by more than one team in the same league.

The draft and tender process differs slightly from league to league, but the overall premise is the same. The NAHL, for example, is affiliated with the NA3HL and a youth showcase league called the North American Prospect Hockey League (NAPHL). NAHL teams are required to draft and tender a certain number of players from the NA3HL and to tender NAPHL players. That allows them to keep close to 40 players on their protected lists, but most teams still narrow the field down to about 30 for training camp.

That number can be pushed a little higher as players who are cut by higher-level junior organizations in the U.S. and Canada and often “trickle” down to the Tier 2 level and get invited to training camps as free agents. Tier 1 and Tier 2 teams are allowed to have a limited number of “affiliate players” as well. These often are younger players who are drafted that a team may send back to their 16U or 18U teams for further development. These are players the team thinks have a legitimate chance to make the roster in the future and who often are invited to practice with the junior team and to play in a handful of games.

Drafted and tendered players are property of a team until they are traded to another organization within the league or released

Earning a spot on a Tier 1 or Tier 2 U.S. junior team is a mentally and physically taxing process that starts well before the drafts are held at spring showcase tournaments and predraft camps then extends into the summer main-camp season and beyond to September training camps. Players are asked to prove themselves repeatedly against a level of competition that ramps up as the offseason progresses and are also expected to be working on and off the ice throughout the process to improve their games and become stronger physically.

There is no place to sign up for a particular draft. Each team has scouts all over the continent who watch hundreds of games a year. It’s not possible for them to see every single player, although very few AAA-level youth players attend predraft or main camps as complete unknowns.

“There aren’t many junior or AAA kids who come to our main camp that we don’t have some form of information about,” said Anthony Matarazzo, Director of Hockey with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL. “Unfortunately, some of our draft picks don’t pan out, which is why we have a targeted approach to our main camp. Not just anyone can get in. We try to bring in players who we think can compete and some others to see how they compete above their age group and then monitor the ones we like the following season.”

Scouts who see players they like may talk to them in person after a game or reach out to a coach for a player’s contact information to contact the player directly or turn that info over to a member of the team’s coaching or hockey operations staff. That is where the process can get a little tricky, though, as much of the contact information is added to a team’s database so the organization can mass email as many quality players as possible with camp “invitations.”

Camp invitations are flattering, because teams generally don’t want weak players coming to their camps, but unless you are having direct conversations via text, e-mail or phone conversations with an actual member of the team’s staff, you are not really being recruited. Direct conversations mean that they are replying to you, reaching out to check in with you regularly and actively pushing for you to attend their main camp or talking about potentially drafting or tendering you.

“Guys on our draft list, close to 100 percent of the time, are kids we have communicated with at some point along the way,” Montalbano said. “The chances of getting drafted are way greater for those kids since we’re not likely to take a chance on a kid we’ve never watched or had a conversation with.”

That doesn’t mean going to a camp based on an email invitation is a bad thing or a waste of time. Any camp experience in which you approach it properly, as we discussed in this recent article, can be valuable. Just don’t get your hopes up about being drafted or tendered if you’re not communicating directly with members of the team’s hockey staff. 

One way to get that communication ball rolling if you haven’t heard from anyone – and to truly get on a team’s radar and start building a relationship – is by contacting their general manager or coaches. While the teams do see hundreds of young players each year, no team sees everyone, and some scouts are much more reliable than others. It’s never a bad idea to advocate for yourself and try to make an impression via an email introduction and by sending game video to organizations that interest you. 

When reaching out to teams, it’s essential to do your homework and understand a team’s needs at your position, if their style of play fits with your skillset, what the team looks for in its players and whether it leans toward drafting and tendering older or younger players. Each organization has its own unique philosophy, so the goal should be to find out which programs might be a fit for you.

“Phone calls and emails are always welcome,” Childs said. “It’s important that you do your homework, not only on the roster but also on a team’s protected list. It might look like a team lost a few age-outs and is going to be stacked and won’t need many guys, but our team does things a little differently. We work with the USHL teams and actively promote our players getting there instead of trying to push them to stay with us. We might only have three or four draft picks this year, because we have between seven and nine guys who are going to USHL camps who we protected and want back if they don’t make those teams. Everyone on that protected list counts against the number of draft picks we get. That makes main camp a way bigger deal for us, because we could lose all of those guys and will only have a few draft picks coming in.”

Montalbano also said that emails are welcomed and encourages players to attend a more intimate predraft camp after first talking to a coach or GM to make an impression in person – both on and off the ice. His main camp will be the team’s largest to date this year as players in the Jr. Rangers’ organization at the 15U through 18U levels have been encouraged to attend. His philosophy is to fill current needs by offering tenders to players he thinks are ready to play right away and drafting with any eye more toward the future.

“We can’t be everywhere to watch every player in person,” he said. “The ID camps in March and April are smaller and allow players to get in front of our staff and to talk to us and do homework on us, too. Is the staff a fit? Do they play a style that fits your game? Do you like the facilities? It allows you to make a decision as to whether a program is a good fit for you and to make an impression on us as well.”

Childs said that Janesville “shoots for the moon” with its draft picks and tenders, looking for the absolute best players available. This would seem risky since the team can lose up to nine players to the USHL, while some of the drafted and tendered players might pursue other opportunities as well if they are good enough.

The organization can take that approach because the staff works tirelessly to ensure there are at least 60 players capable of playing at the Tier 2 level at their main camp. That makes for an extremely competitive situation and more potential opportunities for free agents to make an impression and earn a spot.

“Our tenders and draft picks do get the benefit of the doubt,” Childs said. “We bring them in because they are good hockey players, and we know that something is there that should allow them to play at this level. Last year we had about five players who we took as free agents straight out of training camp who allowed us to trade away other guys because they performed better than returning players or guys we brought in and filled a certain role better. A younger kid who we wanted to send back to U18 and told we would tender him right away in November told us he had an offer to play for another team in the league. That speaks to the level of our camp when a kid we don’t think is ready can go play for someone else right away.”

Getting an invitation to training camp may be the hard part, but at that point the work still is not done. Teams may open their seasons with 25 or 27 rostered players, depending on league rules, and see who sinks or swims over the first four or six weeks of the season. Each league has a different final 23-man roster deadline, but players from every league will be cut and released back into the free-agent pool at some point after all the other teams have finalized their rosters.

That gives them an opportunity to latch on elsewhere and means that some players who have endured the process to earn a final roster spot might find themselves in jeopardy of being released or traded if they don’t meet expectations and another player their organization feels may be better becomes available on the market. Teams generally try to help players they cut that far into the season new homes.

Did we mention that junior hockey is a business?

It’s a tough business in which nothing is guaranteed, and players can’t relax or feel comfortable until they’ve played at a certain level for a while and established themselves as capable and reliable players.

Getting drafted or signing a tender is just the very beginning of a long and stressful journey. At every turn there are literally 1,000 players who would give anything to be in your skates. Unfortunately, players who forget that and take their situation for granted are likely to find themselves looking for a new opportunity somewhere else.

“Every single year one or two kids we tendered or drafted don’t make it past training camp,” Montalbano said, “or we see them play and after a couple months we feel like we have to trade them or release them outright because it’s not going to work. We’re not perfect. Sometimes there are other kids who work and play harder, go after more pucks and just are a better fit for us. It happens.”


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