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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Right Time

For most people graduating from high school and making the transition to college is one of the major milestone markers in life.

For athletes in most sports like football, basketball and baseball, that transition is usually virtually seamless. The star high school players either become scholarship athletes or walk-ons (non-scholarship) at the collegiate level the following year. Some of them become starters and key contributors and even stars immediately at the college level. Others require a little seasoning, some time to physically and mentally mature or some time to adapt to their new surroundings before they are able to step in and play.

Hockey is very much a different animal with a very different model and one very much different step in the process, junior hockey. Very few players make the jump to college hockey as “true freshmen”, meaning directly from high school. Most make another stop in junior hockey along the way.
For a few very gifted and physically mature players, that might mean one year of plying their trade at the junior level before entering college. For most, it seems that two years of juniors is the required amount of seasoning. And for some late bloomers it might take three or even four years of an incubation period before they are ready.

What that means is a gap in the education process for some players, a year or even more delay in academics while they concentrate predominantly on hockey. Ultimately it means a little later “start in life” for some as they take a sabbatical. Most are willing to take the risk to achieve their goal of playing college hockey and getting a college education.

There is the opportunity to hasten the process though. Some players will actually accelerate their high school academics to graduate early so they can leave home in what would have been their senior year of high school to begin their junior hockey apprenticeship. Others might just choose to move away from home to play junior hockey while they are still a senior in high school. Very few players have the option of living in the friendly confines of home and attending their local high school while playing junior hockey.

Choices to be made
So choices need to be made. Should a player leave home to play junior hockey as a senior or wait until high school graduation to take the next step, knowing that it will result in a gap in their educational path for as long as it takes in junior hockey?

It’s a tough question with a lot of different right answers depending on a lot of different variables as it relates to the player and to the hockey and educational options available.

The college hockey world, like most college sports, can be a very competitive and difficult environment. You have to perform on the ice and in the classroom or you won’t play. It’s that simple. Many of the players are big, strong, physically mature and fiercely competitive. Some of them might even be 24 or 25 years old. In some cases it could very well be men playing against boys. A player had better be ready to play both physically and mentally.

And that is where junior hockey comes in. It is the laboratory, the training ground to prepare players to play at the college level. At least as it relates to those who are interested and eligible to play college hockey. Some junior leagues, those in the major junior Canadian Hockey League (Western Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League) consider themselves to be the assembly line to producing National Hockey League players. Education is not mandatory or a priority, although they do have some educational funding incentives to entice players to play there. Players who compete in the CHL are ineligible to play NCAA hockey, although there is a process to petition the NCAA for reinstatement of eligibility, which very much depends on how much time was spent playing in the junior league.

So not only do players need to decide which path to take, college or major junior, they also need to decide when is the best time to make that move. It is not an easy decision for a 15-year old, or even a 16- or 17-year old for that matter.

A long time ago, more years ago than I care to remember, I left home as a 17-year old senior in high school to play junior hockey. I never really gave it a second thought. It was what I wanted to do. My grades were strong, I was a good enough player to be in the top half of the line-up on one of the best teams in the league and I really didn’t think I would be missing out on anything in my senior year of high school in my very small hometown. It would always be there. It wouldn’t change. There really was nothing holding me there. Although I don’t think it really made my mother all that happy. It also helped that my older brother played on the team. Overall it was a good situation and a very easy decision.

But they are rarely that easy to make. In today’s junior hockey world there are a multitude of teams in a plethora of leagues spread across the USA and Canada. How is a player to know which one would be a good fit, a place for them to succeed and grow? And maybe more importantly, what is the right time to give it a try?

Two different stories
I ended up playing three years of junior hockey and was very fortunate to have the opportunity to further my education and hockey career at Michigan State after that. Part of the reason that I “got noticed” by college teams was that they were all very interested in a teammate of mine, one of the top young prospects in North America. He started junior hockey the same year I did, but he didn’t turn 15 until late November. He was incredibly talented, one of the best players on our team and in the league. The only thing keeping him out of college was that he had to finish three years of high school. He never did.

Although he had a multitude of scholarship offers and eventually accepted one, he lacked the discipline (and probably didn’t get the guidance) to focus on what he needed most to get into college, his grades. Ultimately, after three years of Tier II junior, he played two years in the Western League and then one more year of Tier II junior (six years of junior hockey in total, if you are counting) before exhausting his eligibility. At that point he was lucky enough to go to a Canadian university and eventually did spend a couple of years in pro hockey. But it was nowhere near what it could have been.

In college, I played with another player with a similar story. He started junior hockey at 14 and was an outstanding player. He was also pretty incredible in the classroom, accelerating his education so that he was able to start college as a 16-year old. He didn’t turn 17 until February of his freshman year. He led the team in scoring his first two years and was eventually selected second overall in the NHL draft and had an 11-year NHL career that was cut short by injuries but did include a couple of Stanley Cups and 500 points.

Two very similar players. Two very different stories. In fact, if I had to choose who I thought to be the best hockey player, I would have picked the first one. He was that good on the ice. But he made some poor decisions off the ice, which ultimately cost him.

The moral of the story? Players need to be physically, academically and socially prepared to handle the rigors of leaving home to play junior hockey. They need to be strong students with a real interest in their academic careers. They need to be mature enough to handle the off-ice social situations that they will need to deal with and the good (or not good) decisions that they will need to make.
And on the ice they need to thrive, not just survive. They should be one of the better players, in the top half of the team, playing regularly and contributing to the team. Playing time is important, but so is puck time. Having it and making plays, not just chasing it around in an attempt to break up plays.
If all of those elements are not in place, it is probably best that the player stays at home and wait another year for the right time.