What Scouts Look For: Successful Players Embrace the Three "C
This is the third in series of articles examining in detail what hockey coaches and scouts at the NCAA, junior, AAA and prep-school levels look for when watching potential prospects.
By Scott Lowe – MYHockeyRankings.com
No matter how you slice it, hockey is a big commitment for any family.
Whether your child is a beginner involved in a learn-to-play program or a high-level AAA player looking to play at the junior or college level, from Day 1 the hockey just seems to ask a little – or a lot – more from its young participants and their families than other sports.
First, there is the expense.
As a contact sport in which a frozen hard-rubber biscuit can be fired around the playing surface at high speeds, equipment is required. A lot of it. And it’s not cheap. A helmet with a cage or mask, skates, shoulder pads, elbow pads, shin guards, pants with padding, sticks, a supporter, maybe a neck guard. Did I miss anything?
Let’s just be conservative and say that each of those items costs an average of $50. Okay, that’s very conservative, but us hockey guys like round numbers that are easy to calculate.
At that average price point, before a player even steps on the ice, we are looking at an expenditure of more than $400. Fortunately, there are stores where parents can purchase used items and other ways for them to save money by purchasing pre-owned gear, but at some point pretty early on new equipment will be necessary.
Then there is tuition.
The cost to play hockey ranges from a few hundred dollars in the introductory stages to $1,000 or more for recreational programs to a few thousand dollars for a basic travel program to more than five figures to play in the top AAA and academy programs. That’s often before family travel expenses such as gas, lodging and food are considered.
Players who live in areas where hockey is popular may be able to play at the rec or “house” level and not have to travel much. But in other areas, families may have to drive an hour or more just to play games at the rec level, and once players advance to travel hockey – even at the lower levels of play – there usually are several tournaments a year requiring overnight stays.
The older players get, the more the travel ramps up. Likewise, as players advance from one alphabet letter to the next in terms of their level of play, travel increases. It’s not unusual for some non-academy AAA programs to cost families between $15,000 and $20,000 when everything is computed.
Travel also increases the time commitment required to play hockey, which already is substantial – and frequently includes early morning or late-night practices and games – to levels that exceed virtually every other youth sport. And again, in areas where there are fewer hockey players and fewer programs to choose from, that travel can include long commutes for players just to practice a few times a week plus trips of at least that distance to play games on the weekends.
Of course, with gas prices hovering around $4 or more per gallon in the United States, those trips add up. When my son started playing hockey for his “local” club, we had to drive to multiple practice facilities that were between 10 and 35 minutes from our house. Most games were played within an hour’s drive of our house, although in some years we had teams in our league that were between 90 minutes and four hours away.
As he progressed to AA the drive to practice was between 25 and 40 minutes, but there were more practices, more games and many more tournaments. At the AAA level he was driving an hour or more to practice three or four times a week and playing in five-plus tournaments or showcases that required overnight stays. The closest away league game was about an hour and 15 minutes away, and some of the league contests required drives of four-plus hours. Pretty much every other weekend from September through March we were spending time in a hotel.
I’ve spoken to parents of players on his NCAA Division III hockey team from southern states who have told me that they had to drive their kids three hours or more to practice two or three times a week so that they were able to train and play at a level that allowed them to advance to college hockey.
So, the commitment to play hockey is a big one right from the start and just continues to grow the older – and better – a player gets. Hockey players at almost every level miss out on many activities other kids who play other sports enjoy every day. In the beginning, young hockey players might miss a few birthday parties, school activities and family gatherings. Play dates and after-school playtime might be sacrificed so homework can be done before hockey practice.
As players get older and begin to consider playing at higher levels and possibly pursuing the sport beyond 18U and high school, the commitment continues to grow. Players may miss out on school homecoming festivities, proms, parties, vacations, holidays with family and even graduation or other similar meaningful events. Free time to spend with friends becomes more limited, and it becomes harder to just be a kid.
While it’s important to strike a healthy balance and to let kids be kids, the reality is that young hockey players who are driven to pursue hockey to the highest collegiate level they can achieve are going to have to sacrifice some things that may be important to them along the way. It is possible to manage this, to prioritize certain life events as “can’t miss” and allow players to experience as much as possible, but they won’t be able to do it all. And even helping them experience as possible is likely to add stress and chaos as families scramble to get from one place to another in time to provide those opportunities.
Ask any successful college or professional level athletes and they will speak openly of the sacrifices they and their families had to make for them to get to that level. Hockey players are no different. In fact, because of the long – and often convoluted – path hockey players must navigate to play at the NCAA level or above, they may have to sacrifice even more than other athletes.
Not every player is willing to make this commitment to the sport, and that’s okay.
If kids want to go to the beach in the summer, hang out with their friends and attend all the sporting and social events at their schools, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But it is important for young hockey players who want to achieve success beyond the youth and high-school levels to understand that the commitment level needed to make those goals reality is probably far beyond anything that they could imagine.
After many years of watching and working with young players hoping to play NCAA college hockey – and being part of my son’s journey to get to that level – there are three things I see regularly that hold players back. For many of them it’s not that they aren’t talented enough. What it comes down to for most players who don’t make it is what I like to call the three “C’s:” commitment, compete and conditioning.
Not long ago, we posted an article that discussed what high-level coaches and scouts look for when they are watching young players compete in game situations. After talking to a few respected folks in the business, we focused on four areas – skating, hockey IQ, consistency of effort/compete level and character/body language. These characteristics were pretty much universally accepted by the coaches and scouts who were contacted for that article.
With junior tryout camps and summer showcases in full swing, we wanted to reach back out to a larger sample of coaches and scouts at the NCAA, junior, AAA and prep-school levels to see if there were additional attributes we had overlooked, determine which characteristics are considered most important and take a more in-depth look at each area that scouts prioritize.
This is the third in a series of articles about what high-level scouts look for in young hockey players. Compete level was intended to be the focus of this piece, but with compete being one of those three “C’s,” and with commitment being such a large part of how players compete and train off the ice, it made sense to discuss each of those three aspects here.
More than 50 coaches at the NCAA, junior, AAA and prep-school levels were surveyed for this series, and there was not one specific trait that was overwhelmingly chosen as the most important characteristic in a player they were scouting. But skating was cited most often.
Here is a look, in priority order, at the attributes high-level coaches and scouts look for in potential prospects:
- Compete Level/Consistency of Effort
- Hockey IQ
- Character/Body Language
The first three areas were very close in terms of being named by almost all the coaches who responded and having average ratings of between 2.2 and 2.5. Character/body language was the clear fourth choice, getting a few first-place votes but also ranking as low as sixth. Skill/shooting was not ranked above fourth by anyone but got the next-most overall votes.
Other characteristics that were mentioned by a few of the coaches and scouts who responded were:
- Physical Toughness/Grit
- Mental Toughness
- Situational Hockey Awareness
The Three “C’s”
Commitment. Compete. Conditioning.
In my experience those are the areas that separate the players who have the talent to play at the highest junior or NCAA levels but fall short and those who achieve their goal. Sometimes players with less natural ability make it when others do not, and generally it’s because of the three “C’s.”
More on Commitment
I like to talk to the young players I work with about “commitment” vs. commitment. Do you think you’re “committed” or are you truly committed to the process?
As discussed previously, playing hockey is a big commitment for any young athlete, but the commitment needed to play high-level junior or NCAA hockey goes far beyond what is required just to be a good player or considered a prospect. There are sacrifices that must be made and extra effort that must be exerted on the ice, in the weight room and in the classroom to get to those levels.
There are “committed” players who come to the rink on time, take the team warm-up seriously, skate hard in practice and play hard in games. They are good players and good teammates and give an honest effort. They participate and work hard in team conditioning sessions. They attend every practice and game and are solid, contributing members of the team who are well-liked by teammates and coaches.
While that is enough commitment to be a good player and good teammate, it’s just the tip of the iceberg if a player wants to play at the highest levels. There is a level of commitment beyond the basic commitment to the team that involves constantly honing skills, improving skating and getting stronger and that is necessary during and after the season for players to achieve their ultimate hockey goals.
For younger players, the type of in-season commitment described above is perfect. They are on the ice enough and play enough games. We don’t want them to burn out, so playing other sports in the offseason is encouraged to maintain fitness and improve overall athleticism. They don’t need to skate all year and play in high-stress competitive hockey games for 10 or 12 months.
This is when we want to let kids be kids and allow young hockey players to enjoy their lives and do all the fun things that other kids get to experience. If they are bugging you to go to the rink for a skate, a skills session, a pickup game or a stick-and-puck session, by all means make that happen for them. If they want to go to a week-long hockey camp in the summer and it isn’t something being forced upon them, that’s great.
It's when kids are forced to participate in activities that someone else thinks are a good idea in lieu of other fun things they could be doing with their friends that we enter the danger zone. It’s not until young players have made a conscious decision on their own that hockey is something they to pursue to the highest possible levels that the commitment must ramp up.
There is no need for any athlete to focus on one sport year-round before the age of 14 or 15, and even then, athletes who do play other sports find that it is much easier to maintain their conditioning throughout the year than if they are playing one sport and having to deal with offseason treadmill or other types of cardiovascular workouts.
The extra commitment needed to get to the highest levels can’t be manufactured. It has to come from within. There is a level of self-motivation required on the part of the athlete that can’t be taught or forced. The more that young players are forced to do something, the less likely it is that they will enjoy the experience and be willing to fight through the tough times and put in the extra hard work necessary to achieve their stated goals.
The bottom line is that sometimes hockey is going to have to win out over vacations, social activities and just hanging out around the house or with friends. That doesn’t mean there can’t be family and fun time, however. But if fun time always wins out over hockey it’s probably going to be difficult for a player to continue advancing to higher levels.
When my son was a senior in high school being looked at by Tier 2 junior teams, we asked him to sit down and tell us what spring activities were most important to him. Of course, his prom and graduation were the two big ones, and he wanted to spend time with friends during Memorial Day weekend.
For better or worse, those priorities eliminated several tryout and camp opportunities with programs that were interested in him. You can’t and shouldn’t do them all, anyway, so that was fine. In return, he understood that during other weeks and weekends he would need to focus on hockey and making an impression on the other coaches who had shown interest in him.
It was a tradeoff that would serve him well, keep him happy and engaged and allow him to be drafted by teams in both the National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC) and North American Hockey League (NAHL).
The Other Two “C’s”
Compete level is the second-most valued trait in players that college, junior and prep coaches are scouting, according to our survey. In most cases, it’s the truly committed players who also have the highest compete levels and are most focused on their conditioning. That’s another reason why these three “C’s” are lumped together.
“I tie compete level to passion for the game and for competition,” said Matt Keating, head coach at NCAA Division III Rivier University in New Hampshire. “I think that is the main core trait for successful athletes playing sports. At least it was for me.”
Most hockey players, especially elite players, truly believe that they always play as hard as they can, just like they are convinced that they are committed enough to advance to the highest levels. Unfortunately, most times that simply is not the case.
Competing to the best of your ability most of the time is not good enough.
Hockey is a sport of short shifts, and higher-level coaches want players who will go as hard as they can for 45 seconds in all three zones every time their skates hit the ice. Players who find themselves gliding, reaching or watching plays unfold – even when they think their teammates have a situation covered – probably are not competing at a level that will make a coach want to circle their names on a roster sheet.
Tier 1 and Tier 2 junior and NCAA hockey games feature 40 great players competing on a nightly basis. Those players all want to win games and continue to advance to higher levels. Even games between the best and weakest teams often come down to one goal and one mistake. One player taking part of one shift off can be the difference between winning and losing. If you go to a game at one of those levels and sit close to the action, you will notice how hard the players work and battle on every single shift.
“Compete level is incredibly hard to coach into a player,” said Connor Gorman, head coach at the New Hampton School in New Hampshire. “My first year of coaching I thought I could do it, but as I have grown as a coach, I have realized that I don’t think it’s possible. I think that you’re either born with that dog in you or you’re not. We do tons of competition drills to try to bring it out in players, but when push comes to shove either you are born with it or you are not.”
Junior coaches are paid to win and to advance their players to college hockey. College coaches are paid to win. These coaches’ livelihoods depend on the teenage and 20-something players they select to be on their teams, so if they have any questions about a player’s compete level, do you think they are going to trust their paychecks with that player?
“As a coach, it is hard to have to motivate a player every day to compete at a level you know they can,” said Vinnie Montalbano, general manager of the Connecticut Jr. Rangers of the Tier 2 NCDC. “It’s hard to trust a kid who only shows up when scouts and coaches are in the stands.”
Some players will fly around on the forecheck and hit everything that moves in hopes of showing coaches that they will compete, but also will relax coming back in transition on a 3-on-3 situation only to watch helplessly as one of the D gets beaten and a goal is surrendered. Players who allow this to happen but realize they need to do better in the future and make the proper adjustment have a chance. Those who blame others probably do not.
“The kid who really competes never makes excuses,” Connecticut Jr. Rangers NCDC head coach Jim Henkel said. “The kid who just looks like he competes always has a reason why he didn’t do better. The pass was bad. He had no edge on his skates. His legs were tired. His shoulder was sore. The tape on his stick was coming off. That’s what he’s focused on instead of competing harder and correcting the issue.”
Added Montalbano: “The kid who just flies around will probably get himself out of position eventually. Yes, it looks good at the beginning because he’s flying around hitting everything that moves, but eventually he will find himself out of position and that will cost you against a good team.”
You simply can’t fake compete level.
“Coaches can tell if players are faking it,” Keating said. “If a player doesn’t backcheck on a play or loses a 50/50 battle and doesn’t work to get the puck back, if his team is losing late and he gives up on a play or if it’s a junior game at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday and he seems uninterested in playing, those are telling signs.”
This also extends to a player’s overall commitment level and conditioning as well.
“I find that kids with low compete levels usually lack strength and are shy about engaging in puck-battle situations or getting inside around the net,” Montalbano said. “In the scouting world, we call these players soft-skill or perimeter players.
“For me, compete level comes from within," he continued. "Yes, they can work out and get stronger, which might help their confidence, but I believe that compete level has to come from them. How bad do they want it? Are they willing to fight through sticks and bodies to get a scoring chance?”
Hockey players usually are in pretty good shape just from playing the sport. It’s one of the most physically demanding sports an athlete can play, so it’s nearly impossible to become an elite hockey player if you aren’t fit. It takes another level of fitness altogether, however, to be able to compete hard enough to win battles and still have enough left in the tank to make plays with the puck in the top junior leagues and at the NCAA level.
Most players either aren’t aware of the levels of cardiovascular fitness, strength, stamina and power necessary to be successful high-level junior or college players or aren’t willing to do what it takes to build themselves up to those levels.
It takes a true commitment to competing and training the right way for young hockey players get to where they want to go. My son was always very fit from playing multiple sports, and he lifted weights and ran on his own religiously. But it wasn’t until he was willing to spend time with a certified strength and conditioning coach the summer between his two Tier 2 junior seasons that he built the strength, power and quickness that allowed him to go from being a bottom-six to role player to a top-six player who was used in all situations and has played every game since getting to college.
The more committed players are to doing what it takes to improve on and off the ice, the more likely it becomes that they will be able to compete at the level necessary to play in the top junior leagues and eventually at the NCAA level.