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Monday, October 4, 2010

Where do you fit?

Tier I, Tier II, AAA, AA, A, BB, B, A, House, Travel, TOEHL, Adray, LCAHL, Yzerman, Lidstrom, Howe, Mite, Squirt, Pee Wee, Bantam, Midgets, Minor, Major.

So many classifications and so many monikers. What does it all mean? And more importantly where do you fit into the equation? Where should you be? Where should you aspire to be? How do you know when you are ready? How do you know when you aren’t?

Those are some very tough questions. And they apply both to individuals and to teams.

For individual players and their families it can often be very difficult to navigate their way through the hockey world. Especially for those who are new to a sport that has its own unique culture and language. But it can also be very confusing for those who grew up playing the game because so much changes over time. What once was might no longer be.

House hockey? At one time “house league hockey” was a description for teams that played their league games at one facility, in-house. Players in each age group were divided up evenly onto teams so that there was parity within the league and opportunity for all of the teams and players to have success. A wonderful concept, if you really think about it, when it comes to youth sports.

Travel hockey? Those teams were formed by tryouts and because the better players in a given age group were on the team, those teams would “travel” to play similar teams from other areas. Another wonderful concept, if you really think about it, because it allowed for the better players to play at a higher competitive level. They had to travel to find that competitive level, but it provided that opportunity for those players and teams, and it also provided more opportunity for the players and teams in the house league because those games were no longer dominated by the better players.

Shades of gray
What started out as black and white as house and travel has now morphed into gray. A lot of different shades of gray.

There are very few facilities or associations that actually have true “house” hockey anymore. Most places don’t have enough teams at a given age group to have their own in-house league. So those teams end up traveling to other facilities to play what is still called house hockey by many. Confused yet? There are also some places that do have enough teams to have their own in-house league at their facility, but still choose to play in a league with teams from other facilities because they don’t want to just play “house hockey”. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

Playing house hockey, I mean. While it still is “house level” hockey, with teams formed by a draft, I really do think that there is a perception that because teams actually have to (or get to) travel to play games, that the hockey is somehow better. It might be. But it just as easily might not. It also appears to be that the farther that a team travels to play a game that the level of play will be that much better. Again, it might be. But just as easily it might not.

Multiple levels
In theory, “all house hockey teams are created equally.” Well at least with equality, or parity, in mind. But that is not necessarily the case. Player pools in each area are very much different. While one association or arena might have enough players for ten 10 & under teams, another place might only have enough for one.

Some of them might be very good players. Good enough to play travel hockey, but for one reason or another (can’t afford to, don’t have the time, there is no team at that level in their area) they do not. So is that team really the same level as a team from an arena or association that divides up the players to form ten equal teams? Definitely not. In essence, there are multiple levels of house or B hockey.

And travel hockey is no different. There are multiple levels there as well, but for a different reason. Travel teams are formed by tryouts with minimal restrictions on where the players can come from. The better the team, the more players who will want to play on that team. Some teams get close to 100 players trying out. Others barely get enough to field a team. Yet these teams might end up playing each other. Does that seem right? Definitely not.

So to resolve that issue we create multiple levels of play, Tier I, Tier II (also known as AAA and A/AA) and even within the A/AA or “regular travel” category leagues have created various levels to try to create a more competitive environment. Also a wonderful concept.

The problem is that there is often more competition created off the ice (for players) than there is on the ice when the teams play each other. Do the teams fit into the level or does the level define the team and their ability to attract players? Ultimately the level of play very much defines how good a team will be or won’t be and how big its potential player pool will be.

How to decide?
So how do families and players decide what level is best for them to play?

How do teams decide what is the best competitive level? Where do you fit?

The good news is that there are a multitude of choices. The bad news is that many people have no idea what the consequences of those choices might or might not be.

In theory you would think that the principles of supply and demand would help guide people to their level. Players that don’t make a Tier I team would then attempt to make a Tier II team and failing to make that would play B or house hockey. The problem with that is there are multiple levels of all of those levels of teams. Some house teams are better than some A or AA teams. Some Tier II teams (A/AA) are better than some Tier I (AAA) teams in the same age group.

If a player wants (or his or her parents want) to play at a certain level of play, it can be achieved. There are always teams looking for players. It just depends on how far you want to travel and how much you want to pay.

Somehow within this system, the majority of teams and players actually do find the right competitive level to play. But some don’t. And for them, the season can be long and miserable.

There is nothing worse for a team than not being competitive with the teams it plays against. There is nothing worse for individual players than not being able to contribute as part of a team.

There has to be a balance of success and failure throughout the year. Too much of either is never a good thing. The beauty of competition is that, if you pay attention at all, it will let you know where you fit.

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