MYHockey News

Its Hockey Time!

By Scott Lowe -

New York Times photo 

It’s September and ice rinks around North America are once again filled with the joyful sounds of hockey.

One sure sign that things are getting back to normal after a long and stressful 18 months is the abundance of showcase events that are always on the schedule in September and October – along with the return of college and junior coaches and scouts to the rinks to check out the up-and-coming prospects.

These early-season events always are a great opportunity for young players to be seen and get on the radar of programs they might want to play for in the future. This is the best time of year for coaches and scouts to watch players in person, so the big events – like the recently completed NAHL and NAPHL showcases – literally can draw hundreds of scouts.

Junior seasons are just getting underway, so coaches aren’t as stressed as they will be later in the year about their lineups, helping their players get into college or making a push for their league’s playoffs. NCAA Division I teams are only practicing at this point, with their first games still a few weeks away, while Division II and III teams are gearing up to officially hit the ice to start practicing in the coming weeks.

So, not only do the college and junior coaches have more free time in the early fall, but this year they also are especially excited to get back into the rinks after many were prohibited from doing much – or any – in-person scouting or recruiting last season because of COVID restrictions. They did have a chance to check out the talent in some summer showcases, but the atmosphere at those events tends to be more laid back.

“It’s exciting to be back at the rink,” said Vincent Montalbano, general manager of the Connecticut Jr. Rangers of the Tier 2 National Collegiate Development Conference and a scout for the Vancouver Canucks. “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.”

Sean Walsh, head coach at Southern New Hampshire University, also is happy to be out on the recruiting trail. His school shut down athletics immediately because of COVID in March 2019, so he spent all last year watching players on video.

“It’s nice to get out and see some kids play in person, he said. “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 see so much more in person and get a way better feel for the players and who they are by being able to see them, hear them and observe their body language.” 

Unlike the summer, the games are for keeps in the fall. Teams are organized and have been practicing together for a few weeks. Players are competing for their regular-season teams and are in game shape, which automatically ramps up the intensity, and they know that a strong weekend in front of the scouts can be a great first step toward solidifying their hockey futures. 

“I’m not going to come to {a summer showcase} and say absolutely, ‘Yes, I’m going to take that player,’” Walsh 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. 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.” 

With that in mind, it’s important for young players to understand that it’s never too early to take advantage of the opportunity to connect with coaches of programs they hope to play for in the future – especially if they are interested in leaving home to play for a new team or playing at a higher level.

“Reaching out in advance is never a bad idea, especially when the player is showing genuine interest.” said T.J. Manastersky, a fomer Division III head coach who recently was named an assistant coach at Division I Union College in New York. “It’s easy to tell when it’s an email that is going to every coach.”

Too many young players wait until later in their seasons or even after their seasons before connecting with prospective coaches. At that point many, junior programs are pretty far down the road with recruiting and likely are getting bombarded by players in similar situations who are looking to solidify roster spots for the following season. High-level AAA coaches have been watching players all season and likely spoken to many of the ones they are interested in or at least created a list of players they would like to target. 

The process is a little different at the collegiate level, but if you are an NCAA Division III prospect who is aging out or is ready to enroll in school for the following fall and haven’t had serious discussions with coaches of programs you are interested in by the December holidays, you already are behind the curve. If it’s February or March and you are just starting the process or haven’t generated any interest to that point, life is about to get quite stressful for you. 

“It is extremely valuable to reach out early and get on our radar if we’re a school of interest to you,” said Anthony Matarazzo, a former youth and junior coach who is now an assistant at Division III Castleton State in Vermont. “It’s especially important if you are an age-out Tier 3 junior player. Spots are becoming extremely limited with current players being given an extra year of eligibility, and we already are seeing a trickle-down effect from the limited spots available at Division I. We are trying to see as many games live as possible, so if you’re on the radar early, more than likely you’ll get seen.” 

NCAA Division I programs operate a little differently as they recruit both older and younger players, but if you are an elite player with the potential to play at that level and your team is playing in early-season showcases that are being scouted, it’s important to take advantage of the opportunity to be seen in person and connect with coaches of programs that interest you. 

The Tier 1 United States Hockey League (USHL) is the highest-level junior league in the U.S. and the top producer of Division I and professional prospects. That league, along with the top Canadian junior leagues, will be drafting 2006 birthyears next spring. Likewise, Division I programs will be following the top AAA and prep teams in that age group and older since they can begin contacting prospects starting Jan. 1 of their sophomore year in high school.

So, for older players it’s never too early in the season to reach out to college and junior programs, and younger players who are top players on their AAA or prep-school teams should consider making the connection as early as their 14U or 15U seasons. Again, the best time to be seen in person is in the fall when coaches have more free time to attend events and when they are already planning on attending the bigger showcase tournaments so they can see as many teams and players as possible in a few days.

“We always encourage kids to contact us,” said Bob Shattell, an assistant at Division III SUNY Morrisville in New York. “It’s a great way to open up a line of communication. There are so many quality hockey players out there, so it’s hard to see and know all of them. Putting yourself out there may open a door of interest that may not have been there otherwise.”

This is not intended to cause panic or make anyone who has gotten a little bit of a later start in the networking process nervous. It’s a helpful tip that hopefully can relieve a little stress but remember that every player’s pathway to achieving his or her hockey goals is different. If you’re a little behind, it’s not the end of the world. If you’re good enough, more times than not someone will find a place for you, but coaches must know who you are and see you play to figure out if you are good enough. 

While it may be difficult to get a coach who doesn’t know you or hasn’t at least seen you on video to go out of his or her way to make a special trip just to watch you play, it’s much easier to get someone to pop in for one of your games if he or she already is planning on attending an event. That’s the real benefit of these showcases and of reaching out before you attend one. 

There may be hundreds of teams competing at these tournaments, so they can be a double-edged sword. Sure, there are tons of scouts and coaches there, but with so many games in so many age groups being played on many different rinks, if a coach doesn’t just happen to stop by your game – and if you aren’t a dominant player that day – you may not get noticed. If a coach is coming to watch you play specifically, however, he or she will focus on you and potentially see little things you do that all coaches appreciate.

How many times do players only get seen once or attend a short tryout and come away saying that they didn’t get enough of an opportunity to show a coach what they really can do? Well, by reaching out to prospective coaches in advance of showcase tournaments they are already likely to attend, players can improve their odds of being evaluated closely and getting on the radar for more future in-person or video evaluations.

“It’s definitely great to be back out watching live hockey again,” Manastersky said. “That allows us to use video to help supplement the live viewings to get a well-rounded picture of a player.”

Now is a great time to start researching schools, organizations or teams that you might be interested in and to create a list of potential destinations for next year or beyond. Answer online team questionnaires, gather helpful information from websites and request any other information that you might need to help narrow your choices. While some players are open to pursuing almost any opportunity they are presented with, narrowing the focus is an important part of a process to keep it from becoming overwhelming and to ensure you find the right fit. 

“Families should do their research to see which schools and programs fit their needs academically, athletically and financially,” said Dominick Dawes, head coach of the Division III program at Stevenson University in Maryland.

I have worked with players who end up playing a year or two of juniors and spending thousands of dollars before realizing that only a few NCAA Division III schools with varsity hockey programs have their desired field of study. What if you can’t get into those schools or aren’t good enough to play on those teams? That’s a lot of time and money wasted.

Often players only want to play for the best teams at a particular level without realizing that maybe they could play a much larger role, develop more and get better exposure with a solid team that maybe isn’t quite as good. It’s also important to make sure the coach of the program you are looking at plays a style that fits your game and projects you as an important component of his or her team. 

The best plan always is to go where you are really wanted and fit the team’s style of play, so do your homework and narrow your focus before trying to connect with any coaches.

Another complaint I often hear from young players looking to be recruited and play at a higher level in the future is that coaches often don’t respond to emails and phone calls right away. It’s important to remember that these coaches may be responsible for between 25 and 50 players who are in their programs at various levels on a daily basis while also communicating with the prospects they are considering for the future. And they have lives outside of hockey. 

Even if you are a team’s top recruit, you likely are not the coaches’ No. 1 priority on most days. They are trying to win games and run a successful program first and foremost. To do that, they have many day-to-day responsibilities that must take priority.

The longer you wait during the year to reach out to coaches, the busier they get as their seasons and recruiting ramp up. Coaches prefer to watch players in person before committing to them, so the busier they get and the more immersed in their seasons they become, the harder it is for them to get out and see specific players in person. Those who get on the radar early have a distinct advantage in terms of getting seen and being able to communicate on a regular basis with coaches during that frantic period between January 1 and spring.

The more a coach can see you play – in person or on video – the more likely it is that the coach will grow to appreciate everything you bring to the table as a player. And the more you communicate with a coach, the more likely it becomes that you will build a strong relationship and allow the coach to get to know you as a person. If two players are relatively equal on the ice, a coach is more likely to take the player who is a known quantity to him off the ice and has made the effort to build a relationship over one who is more of an unknown.

Character, maturity and finding a player who will fit in well off the ice are important, too, and now is a great time to connect and start building the right kind of rapport. The last thing you want to do is wait so long to reach out that you don’t even hear back from a coach until the spring when every player is trying to find a home for next year.

At that point, you are likely to receive the same invitation hundreds of other players will get to a mass tryout, which moves you back to square one. And you might not hear back at all from a college coach if it’s too late in the recruiting process the first time you reach out.

It’s challenging for most players to showcase everything they can do in a short tryout during which they play a few games with unfamiliar teammates, and almost every player has experienced that frustration. Early communication and relationship building can help players avoid that type of situation.

Just like at a showcase, if you attend a tryout for a team after building a relationship with a coach who likes you as a player and person, that coach is more likely to give you a long, fair look and evaluation. The more closely you are watched, the more likely you are to make a positive impression. It all goes hand in hand.

“I would suggest that players make contact with the coaches and programs they’re interested in, especially for the kids playing in markets that are not necessarily near colleges they’re interested in,” Shattell said. “A lot of kids in those markets really bank on the showcases to garner attention or be seen, and it’s difficult for coaches to see every team and player they’d be interested in. Making first contact and opening that door allows a coach to be able to watch a game on LiveBarn or HockeyTV and to start doing research on the player.”

By reaching out to coaches now and expressing interest, showing the maturity to follow up on a regular basis and letting them get a feel for who you are as a person, you will have a big advantage as the season winds down and the other players who waited to reach out are flooding them with calls and emails. 

If you’ve already built a relationship, your emails will stand out and your calls are more likely to be answered. That, in turn, will allow you to be confident that any video or other information you provide will be reviewed and that you will be given strong consideration for a spot on the team or an in-person tryout opportunity or visit.

It all starts with a simple email right now. Say hello. Introduce yourself. Express interest in the program. Maybe include some video clips of all the shifts from one or two of your best games.

“It doesn’t have to be anything of great detail,” Shattell said, “just an introduction – who you are and your schedule, stuff like that.”

Keep it simple and let the coach know that you will be in touch in the future if you are playing in their area. Once you have connected, if you know that you are going to be playing within reasonable driving distance of a program you are interested in, reach out as soon as you have your schedule to let the coach know so that it is easier for him or her to work your games into the recruiting schedule. Players who wait until a day or two before a game are much less likely to be seen unless it’s a big event that the program’s coaches already are planning to attend.

“The easiest way to get the attention of a coach is to reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m interested in your school,’” Walsh said. “When reaching out you should say who you are, where you play, what number you are and what position you play. Attach a schedule or send the link and include your GPA, test scores and the major you are interested in. That will show the coach that you are on top of things and know what you want. I’ll make sure to watch you and keep a close eye on you the next time I see your team plays. And I’ll definitely make a point to get out to watch the team.”

A little effort now before everyone’s lives get too crazy can be a huge help in allowing you to take the next step toward realizing your hockey dreams. And it should make your spring a lot less stressful. 

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