MYHockey News

Summer Hockey Brings Sense of Normalcy for Players, Coaches & Scouts

By Scott Lowe -

It’s been a refreshing summer around the ice rinks of North America, and not just because it’s a great way to get out of the sweltering heat many of us have been experiencing.

This time last year we had no idea what the immediate future held for hockey in our part of the world. While some rinks were starting to come back to life after months of being shut down or operating at limited capacity under strict COVID-related restrictions, others remained dark – and stayed that way for quite some time.

Some clubs spoke with optimism about trying to start something resembling a season as close to on time as possible, while others debated if they would have a season at all. Tryouts that were supposed to be held in the spring were delayed until the summer in some areas and pushed off to the fall in others.

In the United States, early season tournament organizers looked at potential alternative dates later in the year when things hopefully would be back to normal, while in Canada young players just hoped to be able to get back on the ice again at some point.

Non-contact hockey was played in some areas. There was hockey with masks. Players sat in the bleachers and not on the benches. Only one player at time was allowed in the penalty box.  Spectators weren’t allowed in rinks. Players were dressing in parking lots, and locker rooms were off limits almost everywhere.

And still, while all that was going on, in some places there was no hockey at all.

It was a strange new world, and nothing we were doing gave us much confidence that anyone would play a full season. We were hopeful, but unsure, and it was obvious that in at least some areas of North America starting on time was not going to be an option. It also was clear that hockey seasons were in jeopardy in many locales.

To top it off, the U.S.-Canada border was closed, casting an ominous cloud over the futures of hundreds or more junior hockey players in both countries. And there was no telling when anyone might be able to travel freely between the two nations again.

The uneven approach to handling the COVID-19 outbreak in the hockey world was never more evident than during the summer hockey tournament and showcase season.

For younger players, the summer often presents opportunities to play low-pressure hockey in tournaments with their buddies and for coaches who maybe aren’t as concerned with wins and losses as they are during the season. As they get older, elite players can enter more competitive events such as the World Youth Championship and test themselves against top players from other areas of the country while possibly getting on the radar of college and junior scouts for the first time. And for players in their teens – especially those from less-traditional hockey markets – the summer affords them the chance to compete in showcase events or league-run camps and combines that provide valuable exposure to junior and college coaches.

Nowhere was the uncertainty surrounding COVID and hockey more prevalent than it was last summer in the Northeastern United States. During a normal year, between the second week of May and second week of August you literally can’t find a week where there is not a tournament of some sort behind held in that region. Some of those events host more than 100 teams, and the rinks are often buzzing with at least that many scouts.

Not last year, though.

Many tournaments and showcases were shut down altogether. Some were pushed from the spring to the early summer and then moved again to later in the summer. Others were delayed and moved from Massachusetts to locations such as New Hampshire or Connecticut where there were more open rinks and fewer restrictions. Some organizers tried to push forward with players wearing masks, no contact, no spectators and with locker rooms off limits.

When these events were played, however, the usual buzz was missing. No spectators also meant no scouts. And even if spectators were permitted inside the rinks, the vast majority of college coaches wouldn’t have been allowed to attend anyway because of restrictions imposed by their leagues or institutions. That would continue throughout the fall and winter even after hockey had returned to many rinks around the United States.

The NCAA implemented a recruiting moratorium for all of Division I that restricted coaches from any on-site scouting. That dead period extended through the season and into June of this year. At other levels of NCAA hockey – and at most New England prep schools – coaches were at the mercy of their schools, leagues and local jurisdictions.

Division III leagues such as the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) and the State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) wouldn’t let any of their coaches leave campus to recruit in person, while Division II and III institutions such as Southern New Hampshire University and Framingham State University – and many others – invoked similar restriction on their staff members.

Other leagues and colleges left it up to the guidelines imposed by local jurisdictions to determine if their coaches could recruit off campus, but with almost all facilities limiting or prohibiting spectators, most coaches and scouts had to turn to live-streaming and on-demand video options such as LiveBarn and HockeyTV to scout the tournaments.

Two big indications that we are moving toward normalcy in the hockey world this summer have been the return of college, junior and prep school coaches to the rinks and the lack of parent tailgates with their kids’ games streaming on large monitors in ice-rink parking lots.

With many of the recruiting restrictions remaining in place through mid-June of this year, the larger showcase events that month such as the New England Pro-Am Predraft Showcase were attended by fewer scouts than usual. But by the time July rolled around with tournaments such as the Chowder Cup, USPHL Summer Showcase, Hockey Night in Boston and the Beantown Classic on the horizon, the rinks were crawling with scouts who came out in seemingly record numbers.

One more big step toward hockey normalcy.

Framingham State NCAA Division III Head Coach Mike Bailey is looking forward to a season that is closer to normal after a trying year in which his team never got on the ice for practices or games. Bailey said he put in even more hours than usual in hopes of setting the tone for his team, providing hope and being prepared if a season did happen and helping them come together as a group in the face of adversity.

The many unknowns that COVID presented for all of us made his job that much more difficult.

“We prepared from the beginning as if we were going to have a season,” Bailey said. “The university didn’t really know what was going to happen, so I wasn’t really able to give the team any information. That was hard, and I think after a while it hurt my credibility with the players a little bit because maybe they thought I wasn’t being completely up front with them. I just worked that much harder and wanted them to work harder just in case. I wanted to give them hope, but I really didn’t know what was going to happen or have any information. I lost a few guys who aren’t coming back, but I’m excited to get back out there on the ice with this group because I know that we will be closer as a team and more prepared than ever after going through all of that together.”

Southern New Hampshire University, a NCAA Division II program, made a quick decision to shut everything down in the face of COVID.

“We have been remote since March 2019, so no games, no practices, no seeing teammates,” SNHU Head Coach Sean Walsh said. “Those were the school’s rules, and per our president we weren’t allowed to recruit in person until the end of June. We weren’t allowed to have visits until the end of April.”

Just like it’s hard for a coach to decide if a player is a good fit for his program by only watching video, it’s difficult for a recruit to feel comfortable committing to a college without being able to visit. Walsh has been happy just to get out of the office this summer.

“To be honest, I just got sick of looking at the same four painted walls all day long,” Walsh said. “So, it’s nice to get out and see some kids play in person. You miss so much just watching video, and that’s all we had to go by this year. You’re really at the mercy of the person operating the camera. You can’t see what’s going on behind the play or get a sense for how the game is really being played sometimes. It definitely allows you to see a what a player can do in comparison to the others on an individual basis, but it just doesn’t give you everything you need to be entirely comfortable making a decision on a player.”

Vincent Montalbano is an NHL scout for the Vancouver Canucks and general manager of the Connecticut Jr. Rangers of the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC), a Tier 2 U.S. junior league that offers free tuition. He runs a smaller showcase for uncommitted college prospects in August at UMass Lowell that features 10 teams and usually is scouted by almost 40 college coaches.

As someone who scouts at the junior and professional levels as well as a showcase tournament director who relies on the attendance of college coaches to enhance his event, Montalbano experienced the effects of COVID on hockey from two different perspectives.

“I’m just trying to settle back into a normal routine,” Montalbano said last week during his 2021 Kings of the East Coast Showcase. “It’s not so much catch up. I’m basically just trying to get back into it. It’s exciting to be back at the rink. You definitely miss it – being able to watch live at the rink – but I’m just excited to get back out there and see the guys after I haven’t seen a lot of these players in over a year.”

University of Southern Maine Head Coach Ed Harding was allowed to attend games in person during the past year, but of course he was subject to the same local and rink restrictions that we all faced. While admitting that the recruiting landscape was different, he doesn’t feel like he missed out on that much and was able to accomplish what he needed to as we head into what everyone hopes will be a more normal 2021-22 season.

“I got out a little bit last year,” Harding said. “I didn’t get to see any prep games because we basically weren’t allowed to. Every now and then you might get to catch one of their games online. The online option was fantastic, but I did get out. The NCDC played and the North American {Hockey} League played, and I’ve got a few of those teams in my backyard, so for me it wasn’t that difficult. Plus, I’ve got a whole stable of kids that I’ve been watching for a while now who I just contacted and talked to them on the phone then I would just catch up on them via the video.”

There are a wide range of opinions when it comes to summer showcases. For players in New England who literally can hop on a team every week and play all summer, the tournaments may be nothing more than a way to play some low-pressure hockey while staying sharp for the upcoming season. But for players from less-traditional markets who might be skating in front of junior and college scouts for the first time – or who only play in the area and get seen by scouts a few times a year – summer showcases provide a great opportunity to begin the process of networking and building relationships with coaches of programs they hope to play for in the future.

Opinions about the summer events vary among those who scout them as well.

“I look at this roster,” said Matt Keating, the newly appointed head coach of the Division III program at Rivier University in New Hampshire while looking at the roster of a team with players from a non-traditional market, “and I haven’t seen many of these guys play. They’re good. The other team had a bunch of NAHL players, and these kids are prep players. Some are going to play in the EHL. They went out there and competed with them and played them very tough. They didn’t care. They just wanted to show that they could play, too. That’s how you have to approach these things and why I will come out to watch.”

Walsh said he attends the summer events and that they can help him narrow his focus, but that he doesn’t rely on them to make final decisions about players.

“I’m not going to come to one of these things and say absolutely, ‘Yes, I’m going to take that player,’” he said, “but I may see something that makes me say no to a few players. And it may make me want to take a longer look at some guys once the season starts and they are playing for their junior or prep teams. You just never know what you are going to get this time of year. There are kids who play other sports like baseball and lacrosse in the summer. You come out to watch a kid who is supposed to be very good and who went to National Camp and wonder why he isn’t playing very well. Then you find out he’s a baseball player and hasn’t been on the ice for six weeks.”

Harding attends the summer showcases to follow up on players he already has seen or built relationships with, but he always is looking for other talented players who might be able to have a positive impact on his program.

“I think it’s two-fold for someone coming out,” Harding said between games at a recent showcase. “I can make my own schedule, so I was thinking about coming Tuesday, but it was beautiful outside, so I didn’t. Today is kind of rainy and crappy, so it’s a good day to be in the rink. I’ve got three or four kids who I wanted to see who I’ve been following and who I had identified before, and then after that basically I’m bird-dogging a little bit as well.”

The year spent mostly away from the game and the local rinks – and the NCAA’s decision to award all players who were enrolled in college in 2020-21 an extra year of eligibility to use at their discretion – will keep college hockey recruiting from a complete return to normalcy over the next few years. With last year’s seniors able to come back for a fifth season, there were fewer open spots than ever available for incoming freshmen. That situation should improve with each passing year until last year’s freshmen have graduated, but it’s something that all coaches must deal with going forward.  

“I was proactive, and I think that I needed to do that,” Harding said. “I needed to know who was coming back and who wasn’t coming back to be fair to some of the guys I was recruiting. I did bring a couple extra guys in this year that I wouldn’t normally bring in, and I already have had a couple guys back out, because we’re still not exactly sure what’s going to happen with some of the protocols these schools are taking. So, we’ve got to kind of maneuver around that. I’ve already been in conversations with my guys who are juniors and are going to be seniors this year and told them that I have to know by September what they are going to do as far as recruiting is concerned.”  

None of Walsh’s seniors from last year are returning, but he has 13 players who will be classified as seniors heading into the 2021-22 campaign who can all come back the following year if they choose.

“That leaves me in an odd spot for recruiting,” he said. “I have three kids who are grad students who finished their undergrad degrees in three years. I would doubt they’d come back. I have two kids who are seniors who technically have three years left because of a medical redshirt and COVID. My gut tells me that I’ll need seven to 11 guys, but that’s just a guesstimate.”

Okay, well maybe things won’t be completely normal for a while. Still, seeing everyone at the rinks playing hockey with college coaches back in the building this summer sure has been a big step in the right direction.

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