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It's Not the End if You Don't Get That Contract Right Now Photo

By Scott Lowe - 

While young hockey players hoping to one day play at the highest levels face many ups and downs throughout the course of a season – everything from getting shuffled around the lineup to having a bad game or not playing enough in front of scouts to seeing other players get offers that you were were hoping to receive – nothing quite rivals the stress and anxiety that permeates the youth hockey world this time of year.

That's right, we have entered The Tryout Zone, which often can just as aptly be called The Twilight Zone. 

Over the years here in the United States, as clubs have raced to get commitments from the best players as early as possible in hopes of building the strongest possible teams and guaranteeing that their revenue goals are achieved, youth hockey has evolved to a point where coaches are selecting their teams based on two or three overcrowded tryout sessions six months before their teams actually will take the ice for an official game. 

Nevermind that kids between the ages of 12 and 18 develop physically and emotionally at different rates and that the kid who was too small, too slow or too weak might look and act like an entirely different player and person by the time preseason pratice starts.

And what about the kid who wasn't feeling well, still hadn't fully recovered from an injury or was just plain exhausted from a grueling 60-plus game schedule that ended just a few short weeks prior to tryouts? Oh, well; the timing just wasn't right.

In most cases, the truth is that the team isn't picked over the course of a two- or three-day tryout. Players build up equity with their coaches and ogranizations over time by earning their trust on the ice and continuing to pay exorbitant tuition fees that rise annually. 

Very few top Tier 1 or Tier 2 youth or junior programs enter tryouts with a blank slate looking to find the absolute best 20 players who pay to be part of the selection process. If that were the case, coaches certainly wouldn't treat the process like speed dating and select their teams in a matter of days when there might be 70 or more talented players hoping to make the final roster.

There are returning players who have earned their trust – and paid the bills – who coaches want to reward was well as some other top talent they have scouted throughout the year and are targeting. The goal is to win the arms race by convincing all those kids to sign contracts as quickly as possible. My son attended AAA tryouts during which he was pulled off the ice during the first session and handed a contract.

There are always unhappy players – as well as players who feel they have outgrown a particular program or who have worn out their welcome – so there may be a handful of spots open, but usually the opportunities are limited. And players coming from other organizations looking to move up to a higher level or play for a better program in hopes of taking another step toward achieving their long-term hockey goals are well aware of this.

That just adds to the pressure and anxiety too many young players feel this time of year. The combination of knowing they have just a few opportunities to stand out from the masses and earn one of the extremely limited roster spots on their team of choice, combined with the fear of possibly not being able to continue on an upward path toward achieving their goals, can be a heavy burden for any young person to shoulder. 

The panic in the air right now is palpable, and it seems to grow daily as teams conclude their tryouts, contracts are handed out and rosters are posted publicly.  And while that is understandable given the current climate we live in, no matter what happens right now it's important for players to understand that it's not the end of their hockey dreams if they don't make the team that is their top choice.

Whether players are just entering their teens or are moving up to play 18U, getting cut by one team is not a death blow to their hockey futures – even if a 16U AAA coach once told my son that his hockey career essentially would be over if he chose not to play for his team.

Meanwhile, three players from my son's 16U AA team went on to play Division III NCAA hockey, and he only played one year of AAA as an 18U and still was drafted in two Tier 2 junior leagues. One of the players from that team currently playing at the Division III level never played above AA before heading off for juniors and the other went from AA to prep school to juniors. 

It’s literally not life and death, nor is it the end of any player’s career, if he or she doesn’t earn a spot on the team of his or her choice as a teenager.

The first thing you should realize as a player if you don't earn a spot on an initial roster is that many teams don't completely fill their rosters immediately following spring tryouts. The year my son played AAA, at no point during that season did the team have a full roster, and I know for a fact that our coach would have added players that could help the team at any point before January 1.

There are a couple of factors at work here.

Some coaches may be hesitant to roster players who are attempting to move up to a new level based on a few tryouts until they are positive that those kids are the best available options for that team. Combine that with the belief among many coaches that the grass is always greener, and you end up with many teams leaving roster spots open just in case some top-line forward or brick-wall goalie magically emerges and walks through the door the first day of training camp 

Many teams facing this type of situation allow players who are on the bubble to stick around and continue skating with their teams to see how they develop while they continue to look for players who they can add to help them build a stronger roster. 

Tier 1 coaches don’t take building their rosters lightly, so unless they absolutely are convinced a player can help their team, they are going to try to watch the players they aren’t sure about on the ice over a longer period of time. So, if you didn't get a contract this week, it’s hardly time to panic.

Step away and clear your mind for a day or two then reach out to let the coaches of the teams you hope to play for know that you are still very much interested and ask them to keep you in mind if an opening arises. If a particular team is your No. 1 choice, make that clear to them while also telling them that you will continue to explore other potential options. Make them aware that you will be continuing to train on and off the ice and look forward to being able to show them what you are capable of anytime they might want to see you on the ice again.

Of course, at that point it is on you to uphold your end of the bargain. Maintain your off-ice strength training regimen, keep up your cardiovascular conditioning and work on your shooting and skills. 

Another important reality to understand is that no matter what happens today, tomorrow, June 1 or Aug. 1 as far as where you ultimately end up playing, it will not guarantee you anything as far as achieving your long-term goals.

If you don’t make the local Tier 1 team, it’s not by any means the end of the road for you. And if you do make the cut, you still must be willing to make the commitment to the sport on and off the ice necessary to continue moving up the developmental ladder and progressing toward junior and college hockey. Playing AAA hockey doesn’t guarantee you anything other than perhaps a little ego boost and maybe a higher level of competition.  

No matter the level at which you play, the burden is on you to dedicate the time and put in the effort necessary – while being coachable and hungry to improve on a daily basis –  to prove that you are truly ready to advance to whatever the next level may be.

There are so many different pathways to that lead to junior and NCAA-level hockey – and still others that lead to great academic and hockey opportunities at the ACHA or CHF college club level – that it isn’t worth looking back or stressing out over what might have been. If you make the most of whatever situation and opportunity is presented to you and do everything in your power to prove that you are capable, ultimately you will be a better person and player with plenty of great opportunities from which to choose.

When my son was going into his second year of 16U, both Tier 1 teams in our area made him offers. That's when one of the coaches, who is no longer coaching locally, told my son that if he stayed with his AA team his hockey career essentially would be over. Oh, and he gave him 24 hours to make up his mind about where he wanted to play.

To my son’s credit, he walked out of that meeting and said that while he liked the coach – with whom he had trained quite a bit previously – he didn’t appreciate what the coach said or how he was treated in that meeting. My son went back to tryouts the next day and kept playing hard but told the coach he needed more time to make his decision.

Despite the pressure to make an immediate decision, the offer was not pulled (if they really want you the offer isn’t going away no matter what they tell you), but ultimately he chose to stay with his AA team because he knew that he would be captain and that the team would be playing in a high-level showcase league against a bunch of AAA teams in New England. 

“My team is going to be better. I’m going to be captain, and we will probably go to Nationals again. We are playing a schedule that's as good or better than they are, and it will be a lot cheaper.”

Hard to argue with that. While in my heart I may have thought it was time for him to move up to Tier 1, he made the decision and backed it up with solid reasoning. I knew he loved his teammates and coaches and would make the most of his situation.

Fast forward and he played one more year of AA then captained the 18U team for the same Tier 1 program whose coach told him his career would be over. That year he led the league in scoring, was an all-star and got drafted in the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) and the North American Hockey League (NAHL). After two years playing in the NCDC he committed to play NCAA Division III hockey for Suffolk University in Boston where he has dressed for every game of his career and led the team in scoring this past season as a junior. 

Another player from our area who participated in many of my programs and with whom I worked closely never made the jump to Tier 1. He played AA through his first year of 18U then made the leap to juniors. After two years playing in the Eastern Hockey League (EHL), where he was an all-star and all-academic selection, he was accepted to Wesleyan University. This season, after the team was shut down because of COVID last year, he made his NCAA hockey debut and appeared in 14 games for Wesleyan. 

All he wanted from the day I met him was to get an opportunity to play hockey at that type of high-ranking academic institution. Mission accomplished.

Including the two players from my son's 16U AA team mentioned previously, that makes four players who played mostly AA hockey for programs located no more than 20 miles apart in a non-traditional hockey market who appeared in NCAA Division III hockey games during the 2021-22 season. 

Another player from our area played for A and AA programs up through his 15U season before making the jump to the AAA level. The spring prior to making the move to Tier 1 he earned an invitation to attend USA Hockey's National Camp for his age group. He went on to earn a spot in the league all-star game during his first season at the AAA level before moving to Boston to play for a strong Tier 1 program the following year. While playing there he signed a tender agreement with a Tier 2 NCDC junior team. 

And still another player who grew up playing in the same area as the others mentioned previously played all the way through 16U with a AA program that traditionally is one of the best in the nation. He was drafted in the NCDC the same year as my son and played two years in that league before making a few appearances in the USHL and ultimately scoring 31 points one year in the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL). He committed to RPI, an NCAA Division I program, and appeared in 26 games for the Engineers during the 2021-22 campaign. 

The pathways to NCAA hockey are almost endless and dependent upon each player’s specific situation. If you have the fortitude to make the most of whatever opportunity you are presented, you have a chance. If you make sure to align yourself with good coaches who have a track record of moving players on to higher levels and a team that plays a rigorous schedule with strong and like-minded players to practice against, you will continue to get opportunities to advance.

NCAA-hockey television commentator Dave Starman is one of my favorite people in the sport. Very few people see more amateur hockey or do more to help grow the sport than he does. He also has been a Tier 1 youth hockey coach. 

"There is no question that players at this age group are certainly responsible for their own careers," Starman wrote in an article focused on players moving into their mid-teenage hockey years. "Their coaches see them maybe three hours a week in practice, so what they do with the other hours in terms of stretching, rest, studying, training, etc. is up to them. Some run with the responsibility, some expect to have it handed to them. That being said, they need to be coached, taught, trained and developed."

Many times, playing at a level that provides good competition – but may not be the highest level offered for a particular age group – can help a player develop more than playing for the higher-level team in a much-reduced role. There are ways to get exposure to higher-level competition and scouts through summer training programs and by playing in well-scouted showcase events – as well as by attending select legitimate junior tryout camps and college prospect camps. 

No matter where you play, strive to be a leader on your team. Continue to put in the time and effort on the ice, off the ice and in the classroom. Be coachable and take advantage of every opportunity. Get into a great off-ice training program with a certified strength and conditioning coach. Go play against some higher-level competition in the spring and summer so you can get feedback about your play from other coachers or scouts. 

Once you get that feedback, don't get angry if it's not what you want to hear or say the coach doesn't know what he or she is talking about. Listen and absorb it. Take it to heart and make every effort to improve whatever aspects of your game they believe need work. 

Remember that you can’t improve without leaving your comfort zone. Get right back to work and grind it out – be ready to get on the ice and start working on the details of your game that can carry you to that next level. And keep working off the ice to get stronger while improving your understanding of the game.

Make the most of every single opportunity that comes your way, and whatever happened at tryouts last week, next week or later this summer won't matter. It will just make an even better story when you achieve your goals.


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