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Maybe We Shouldn't be in Such a Rush to Pick Our Teams Photo

By Scott Lowe –

While there was much negativity and frustration when the world shut down as COVID spread like wildfire during the spring and summer of 2020, many of us looked for the positive aspects of the situation as well as positive outcomes we hoped might arise from having to take a step back and slow the pace a little.

We had more flexible work hours. More family time. Additional free time to improve our fitness and overall health. Less daily stress and running around. Time to work on that home-improvement project we’d been putting off.

And many of us hoped we might learn some things about our lives and 21st-century lifestyle that would translate into positive outcomes in the future. The emergence of Zoom as a business and academic tool proved we don’t need to travel as much for face-to-face meetings. Cutting work-related travel saves money and allows people to be away from their families less. If businesses save money maybe the budget excess could be used to improve employee wages or benefits.

We also hoped that with pretty much everyone working from home we would prove that businesses could function successfully without people grinding through 60-hour work weeks or putting in a ton of overtime. A balanced combination of office hours and work-from-home hours might actually lead to more productivity and almost assuredly would help to improve our overall mental health.

The hockey world was no different from the real world.

While we hated that something our kids love so much – and that most of us love as well – was taken away and we feared for how the lack of physical and social outlets might negatively impact the quality of their lives and their overall mental health, we hoped we might learn a few things that would benefit the sport and the player experience in the long run.

Zoom showed us that we could hold productive team meetings and even off-ice workouts without requiring players who might live a great distance away from having to drive to a central location. Players who had just finished long, grueling schedules got to let their bodies and minds rest and recover. Then, when they felt refreshed and recharged, they had more time to focus on off-ice activities such as improving their individual fitness and skill levels.

So, even for hockey there was a silver lining.

Some of us even hoped that having to shut things down for a few months before allowing tryouts to take place and team rosters for the following season to be filled might demonstrate once and for all to the youth hockey world that there is no need to be in such a rush to finalize teams so close to the end of one season and so far ahead of the next.

During that spring and summer tryouts were delayed, and kids took a break from hockey. They didn’t finish their 60- or 70-game seasons and immediately go into panic mode about what team they would play for, what line they would be on next season or if next year’s team would be any good.

Everyone – players, coaches, volunteers and parents – got to step back, take a deep breath and relax without having to run to this pre-tryout skate, that skills session or tryouts for teams often located an hour or even more away that seem to schedule so that it’s next to impossible to attend other organizations’ tryouts.

While some folks still found it impossible to relax and began worrying about teams being filled without true in-person tryouts and their kids getting the short end of the political stick, for many in the hockey world that down time was a breath of fresh air that got us thinking it should be that way every year.

Unfortunately, two years later it seems as though the race to fill teams with the best players and get deposits in the bank as quickly as possible has outweighed anything we might have learned from that experience. Teams began advertising tryouts as early as January and February, and some teams even started the process before USA Hockey Nationals were completed.

To many, the way youth hockey teams are picked begs the question: Why are tryouts for a sport that runs from September through March held in April? The reasoning is easy to follow, but that doesn’t mean it makes much sense.

When I was growing up (I’m old), tryouts were held a few weeks before the start of practice. Our rink didn’t even open until late October or early November, so that’s often when tryouts took place. We skated for a couple weeks, teams were picked and games started shortly thereafter. We practiced once or twice a week and played a game or two on weekends roughly from November through early March.

Today, tryouts are held for most clubs in the United States as soon as USA Hockey Nationals end in April. The urgency probably isn’t as great at the “A” and “B” levels, but the top “AA” and “AAA” teams are scrambling to get the first shot at the best players in their area and want to be make offers as quickly as possible.

It’s understandable in a competitive environment that the highest-level teams would want the first crack at the players they consider to be the best, but there are so many flaws with this approach to youth tryouts.

First, as kids approach and enter puberty, how many times do you see a player who grows anywhere from three to six inches and gains 20 or more pounds over a span of five to six months? There are countless stories about kids who get cut because they aren’t big enough, fast enough or strong enough in the spring but are much more physically prepared five months later.

Obviously, when kids are in their late teens and have done most of their growing, this approach might make more sense. But why would you want to limit yourself as a coach as far as the players who are available to you while at the same time taking away the opportunity from a kid who might be more than ready and more than deserving in September, the month that your season starts?

Making this situation worse is the fact that many competing teams hold tryouts at the same exact time and force kids to decide where they want to play before they even get to see who they might be up against and who else is going to be on a particular team. Then they don’t make the preferred team and another team at the level they are interested in won’t consider them because they couldn’t make every tryout.

“We want kids who want to play for us,” is something I’ve heard from Tier 1 hockey directors when asked about kids splitting time between their tryouts and another team’s tryouts to figure out what their options might be. Okay, maybe be more accommodating then? Just a thought.

Second, these tryouts tend to be a whirlwind of three or four sessions with a lot of players – too many players – on the ice at one time. Truth be told, it’s really hard to determine who the best players are under these circumstances and nearly impossible to guarantee that you pick the best 15-20 players in just a few sessions.

This is another huge flaw. What is the point of trying to pick the top kids in just a few sessions knowing that it’s nearly impossible to do that?

Unfortunately, getting people’s full-season payments often is the top priority for many clubs, and the coaches believe they are smart enough to already know who the best players are in advance – making the actual tryout process a charade, albeit a charade that often generates revenue for the club as up to 100 players might be willing to pay the tryout fees.

If a player misses one session, that may severely diminish his or her chances of making the team. Again, why would any coach want to risk missing out on some of the best players just by being in a rush to get offers out quickly?

If doctors, college coaches and pro coaches encourage young players to be well-rounded athletes and play other sports – and kids are also encouraged for their mental and emotional well-being to be well-rounded young people off the ice with other interests besides hockey – why should a kid be penalized for missing an out-of-season hockey tryout to compete in an in-season sport or be in the school play?

Third, a player’s and family’s decision on where to play shouldn’t be based solely on which high-level team offers the player a contract first. Aspiring to play at the highest level possible is a great goal for any young player, but the most important thing is to find a team, coach and schedule that is the right fit for the player and his or her family as well as a situation where he or she will get plenty of ice time and develop.

There is no way for a player or family to get a real feel for a coach, team or playing situation after a few short tryouts. In fact, there’s no realistic way that coach will even be able to accurately communicate a player’s status – unless that player is one of the absolute standout players on the ice at all times – without seeing the team practice and play together for several weeks.

This all would be manageable if teams would simply give players a week or two – or even more – to evaluate their options, but many times they ask for a decision within 24 to 48 hours. More times than not, if they really want someone they will wait. And if they aren’t willing to wait, that says something about their program and the character of those involved.

Why are they pressuring you? What’s the rush? What are they trying to hide?

This is an often-used tactic to get top players to commit right away and to collect the guaranteed money. Be careful. Ask questions. Try to take as much time as they will allow.

The process can be difficult and stressful to navigate, but the last thing a player or family wants is to rush into a decision that turns out to be a bad one. To develop fully, players need to get plenty of ice time, great coaching and be challenged but not overwhelmed. Being a 14-year-old fourth liner on a very strong AAA team likely won’t help a player as much as being a top player on a good AA team with a respected and knowledgeable coach.

Playing on the top AAA team makes for great social-media bragging material and cocktail party conversations, but think about the potential long-term impact if the player doesn’t develop as much as he or she could have during the years that may be most crucial to his or her hockey future.

This process probably evolved when one team somewhere decided to hold its tryouts as early as possible in hopes of scooping up all the top players. Of course, all the other teams in that area followed suit and soon tryouts for a fall and winter sport were being held five months in advance of the season all over the continent.

USA Hockey could probably fix this pretty easily by mandating that Tier 1 tryouts not start until Aug. 1, with Tier 2 tryouts allowed to begin Aug. 15 or later. No games or tournaments should be counted toward the upcoming season before Labor Day.

It seems like a pretty simple solution, but youth sports have become big money and there are outside forces at work here as more in-season tournaments are scheduled in August each year and the longer schedule allows for higher league, team and tournament fees to be collected.

There is no need for youth hockey season to run from August until almost April. Starting Oct. 1 and putting a hard limit on the number of games would be even better and go a long way toward eliminating many of these tryout issues as well as 80-game schedules that can lead to burnout and ultimately hinder player development or cause players to give up the sport.

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