Search This Blog

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Path Taken

Noted philosopher and former professional baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “When you see a fork in the road, take it.”

As talented, young hockey players enter their mid-teens and high school years they are presented with that very scenario. A fork in the road. And deciding which path to take can be a very difficult decision to make.

On one side there is the college hockey route. And once that choice is made, there are still a number of different considerations to factor into the equation as it relates to which school to attend.

College, in general, is about the experience. Young people moving away from home, gaining independence, making choices, accepting responsibility and gradually transitioning into adulthood.

The majority of people who attended college will include their college years as some of the best years of their life. And that could be for a lot of different reasons, some productive, some probably very unproductive. What is common to all though is that the college experience is the bridge to adulthood.

The college hockey experience includes all of those elements of the college experience, plus the opportunity to play a very high level of competitive hockey. In essence it allows the student-athlete the flexibility to pursue two career paths simultaneously, academics and athletics, and from that respect provides a great deal of flexibility for the future.

Choosing the other course, major junior hockey, takes a player in a very different direction and typically on a much faster journey. The Canadian major junior hockey world is structured very similarly to the professional hockey world. Quite different from college hockey in that respect. Hockey is clearly the number one focus. Really, it is more like an apprenticeship for professional hockey. There is the opportunity to pursue academics at the same time, but the environment doesn’t really lend itself to success in that area. A player needs to be extremely disciplined and driven academically to succeed.

A difficult decision

So which choice is best for aspiring hockey players as they begin their journey into hockey adulthood? It’s a great question. And it very much depends on the player, their skill sets (both academically and athletically) and their goals in life. It’s not an easy decision and very often it has to be made when a player might be too young to really understand the potential consequences.

Unlike other major sports, very few hockey players jump directly from high school to college. For all but a few there is a stop in between, junior hockey. A year or two, or sometimes three, of seasoning in the junior hockey incubator allows players to mature mentally and physically to step into the college hockey world and be prepared to compete.

Major junior hockey provides another alternative for players. But it comes with a price. The majority of junior hockey leagues across the United States and Canada are viewed as non-professional by the NCAA and thereby serve as the competitive training grounds for teenage hockey players in high school and in their post-grad years prior to attending college.

However, the highest level of junior hockey, the Canadian Hockey League, which is comprised of the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, with approximately 60 teams spread across Canada and sprinkled throughout five American states, is considered by the NCAA to be a professional league. Players who participate in these “major junior” leagues are pretty much ineligible to play NCAA hockey. There is a limited amount of petitioning that can be done to reinstate eligibility. But in most cases, once a player has chosen the major junior hockey path there is no turning back. The college hockey door is pretty much closed.

From that respect, the major junior hockey league teams have a significant advantage when competing head to head with college hockey teams for the services of a potential recruit. Major junior hockey teams are comprised mostly of 17-20 year old players but there are a few 16 year olds and even a few 15 year olds who have played.

In contrast, college hockey teams are restricted by NCAA rules to initiating contact with prospective student athletes until they are entering their junior year of high school. The player/family can contact the school if they choose, but the school can not contact the player. Quite obviously, advantage junior hockey in terms of the ability to make a strong first impression.

Predicting the future

But this decision is really just not about first impressions. It requires a great deal of thought about the future. And predicting the future is not easy. Managing the here and now is. Being able to understand the potential long-term ramifications of today’s decisions? Again, not so easy.

So how does a player choose? Succumbing to what we know today is tough not to do. A bird in hand might be more than two in the bush. It is difficult to resist temptation when someone is telling you how great you are, how much greater their program can make you and how the road to your National Hockey League dream runs through their major junior hockey program. Especially if you are 16 and the other option requires two more years of junior hockey before you can start college. Especially if you have had limited or no contact with any college hockey programs.

When you boil it all down, it very much depends on the skill sets and goals of the player. A projected first-round draft pick could make a strong case for choosing major junior hockey over college. That being said, there have been many first round picks that have never played a game in the National Hockey League, let alone made a career there.

Both routes provide similar athletic experiences and both have proven successful gateways to professional hockey. College hockey has a little shorter season with fewer games and more practices. Major junior hockey has more of a professional league schedule and environment, including the potential of being traded from team to team.

A big difference

The biggest difference is the commitment to academics. If a player is not as committed to performing in the classroom as he is on the ice then he is probably best off to go the major junior route.

As a former college hockey player, I can speak from experience in saying that the greatest benefit of college hockey is the flexibility that it provides for players for life. If they take advantage of the opportunity and are serious academically. I was fortunate enough to play professional hockey for four years. But I also had to be prepared to transition to a career for the next forty years.

That’s the scary part. But that also might be one of the benefits that major junior hockey provides. Desperation to play at the professional level. While getting an education during or after a junior hockey career is possible, it is much tougher to do and the environment is not very conducive to doing so.

To me the greatest factor to consider when making a choice is that there is no guarantee that a professional hockey career will happen. Even if it does, there is no guarantee that it will be long enough or lucrative enough to be able to ensure financial independence for life. The only real guarantee with a professional hockey career is that it prepares a person for absolutely nothing when it comes to the rest of your life.

When facing the choice at the fork in the road, the most important consideration is not where the path will lead you at the start, but where it will take you much further on.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Essentials of Player Development

Without a doubt the most over-used word in the youth hockey world is “development” - and it’s become exponentially moreso in recent years with the advent of USA Hockey’s American Development Model.

People throw around the ADM acronym like a peanut vendor at Comerica Park during a twelve-game home stand. Although personally I think very few people even really understand the program from bottom to top.

Which isn’t surprising, because I don’t think that most people have that great of an understanding of what exactly “development” is anyway, as it relates to hockey players. No disrespect intended, but some people couldn’t spot development if it was developing right in front of their nose.
Yet I always find it somewhat humorous, and at the same time somewhat alarming, during the youth hockey tryout season because it seems every coach and every team is touting the incredible amount of development that they have to offer for your player if you choose to join their team. Which always makes me wonder, if there is so much development going on at that team why are they looking for new players?

It could be that the players actually have developed and have chosen to move up to a team at a higher level. But that’s probably the case only in a few instances, as there just aren’t enough teams and roster spots at higher levels for all of the potential players being developed.
Maybe this development that is being sold isn’t really all it is cracked up to be? Maybe these coaches are just using that catch-phrase to attract really good players to their team, which makes the team better and makes the coach look good? Maybe the key to a good team and being considered a good coach is to have a really good marketing department creating your tryout ads?

How do you really know?
How is a parent of a hockey player to know? How do you recognize if development is really happening or not? Is it based on wins for the team? The tournaments that they have won? Goals and assists for the player?

What exactly is this thing we like to call development? How do we describe it? How do players get better? And why do players get better? And why at different rates and times? Why do some players start out strong and get passed by as they get older? Why are some kids late-bloomers?
The truth is that there are a number of different factors that figure into the mix of development for each player. Some completely out of anyone’s control and some that are substantially more significant than others. But they all play a role and they are all somewhat intermingled:

The Practices – Coaching does play a role, but not nearly as much as most coaches like to claim it does and most parents are told to believe it does. And there are probably considerably more players who have had their “development” stunted or stopped completely by coaches than there are those who have had it enhanced. In fact there are plenty of players who have developed quite well in spite of their coaching, not because of it. It could go either way.

Good coaches understand that the players are kids and the game needs to be fun. That’s more than half the battle. Coaches who create a fun and upbeat practice environment give the players the best opportunity to develop. Those who like to think they are coaching a professional team and there is no room for the F-word (rhymes with sun) are the ones that suck the life and any chance for development out of the players and the team. The best thing a coach can do in practice is try to teach proper technical skills and then re-create age appropriate game specific situations that the players can learn from.

The Game – Kids love to play the game. And the game can be the most valuable developmental tool for the players. If the coaches don’t get in the way and micro-manage it away. The great thing about the game is that we keep score and the players have a chance to compete. The bad thing about the game is that we keep score and it gives the coaches the chance to compete.

And to be fair, in many cases the coach’s desire or need to win is very much dictated by the parents of the players. Not enough wins equals mass exodus of better players. Winning is important. But losing can be just as or even more important. The key is balance. Too much of one or the other can be harmful to players if not handled correctly.

Good coaches understand that the game is the best teacher and allow their players to learn from it. Hockey is a game of mistakes. If a player never has the opportunity to make any they will have a hard time progressing.

The Player – Finally, and most importantly, it’s the player who ultimately plays the biggest role in their own development or lack thereof. How they approach practices and games and how they interact with their teammates and coaches very much has an impact on how they develop as a player.

Yet while there are many variables that players do have some control over there are some that are completely out of their hands. As a player, it is tough to do anything about your size and your physical stature. You are what you are. You can train to become faster or stronger but you can’t become taller. Smaller players may have some physical disadvantages, but at the same time in many cases they overcome that deficiency by becoming a quicker, smarter player.

Three more things
In my opinion there are three characteristics that have the greatest impact on a player how and if they will develop as a hockey player.

First there is athleticism. You have to be athletic to play hockey which means you need to have a solid mix of size, strength, balance, agility, coordination, quickness and power. Some players are lucky and come by those attributes naturally. Others have to work much harder and longer to compensate. Athleticism means more than just hockey-specific. The best hockey players are oftentimes the best players in other sports as well.

Desire comes next. You have to love to play the game so much that anything put into it doesn’t feel like it’s an effort to do so. Enjoyment of the game has a huge impact on desire. No fun, no desire. It’s that simple. Sometimes we get so hung up on development and where we are going that we forget about where we are at. If we don’t take care of the here and now, where we are going in the game is really irrelevant because we won’t be in the game long enough to get anywhere. Players who have a great desire to play never feel like they are sacrificing anything to play.

The last and maybe most important component is confidence. To be one of the best you have to believe you are capable of being one of the best. Confidence is a fragile thing. It can come and go in a heartbeat. One day you feel like you can knock a wing off a fly on the goalpost on a shot from the top of the circle and the next day you can’t hit water shooting off the end of the dock.

Over-confidence, while not necessarily a good thing, can lead to a lack of confidence in a hurry. One of the great things about the game is that it can quickly humble the over-confident.

Developing the confidence in your game is a lot tougher to come by. But when you have the confidence to compete, you never know what can happen from there.