The Flavor of the Month

I heard a story recently about a junior hockey showcase. NCAA rules permit coaches to talk with players after a showcase concludes.

At the end of this particular showcase, a team had to wait for over an hour and half for one player to finish talking with college coaches. Soon after the showcase, the player committed to play Division I hockey. Two years later, he transferred to a different Division I institution and finished his career as a role player.

At the same showcase, the same team had another player on it’s roster who had almost zero college interest. By the end of the year, he secured a commitment to play Division I hockey. Three years later he was playing every night in the NHL.

Too many times we get caught up with “The Flavor of the Month”. Coaches become obsessed with people who catch their eye and have a great two or three game stretch at a showcase. Players put immense amounts of pressure on themselves to have good games in big settings.

If we recruit the “Flavor of the Month”, we probably shouldn’t wonder later why that same player struggles with his or her consistency in games. We need to put more emphasis on the player who succeeds over time – recruiting players who play the game the right way and pay attention to detail , rather than the one who catches your eye one weekend in early September.

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AHCA – Ron Rolston Hot Stove

A favorite part of the convention for me is the “Hot Stove” talks given by a handful of coaches. Designated coaches will talk about their year/career/topic of their choice and then answer questions. Here’s what Ron Rolston (former HC of the Buffalo Sabres) had to say:

  • Ron was in the college game for 13 years as an assistant coach prior to moving to the NTDP to be a head coach
  • Working as a HC at the NTDP allowed him to do his own thing, the job changes dramatically from AC to HC
  • He was hired in Rochester (AHL) when Buffalo (NHL) wanted to change their minor league format to a more developmental system similar to the NTDP
  • After he was let go in Buffalo, he spent the year travelling and looking at different programs and how they operate – NHL, AHL, NCAA – he’s learned that the better teams have a few components: an organizational philosophy that is well mapped out and everyone sticks to it – attention to detail in everything they do
  • Leadership philosophy is that leaders drive the height of the organization but you have to bring in guys who have good leadership abilities and a commitment to accountability – these guys drive the bus from the inside
  • When moving around in coaching, you have to go somewhere where you are comfortable with the mindset and the approach – there’s risk in everything you do in coaching and you have to know that you’ll get knocked down at some point – only you know when you’re ready to take the next step
  • College coaching vs Pro coaching – in college, the coaches are the GMs/Player Personnel guys, in the Pros, you have to take the players you’re given and coach them – guys have to want to learn and you have to show them you care about them
  • Player Distractions: In College & at the NTDP you have to know what guys are doing and you have to stay in their business – at the Pro level guys are driven to be there and you trust them until they hang themselves…distractions are limited because it impacts their careers in a much different (more public) way

AHCA – Championship Coaches Panel

Every year, the AHCA invites the four finalists from the Men’s DI and DIII Frozen Four to speak on a panel. Each school gives a summary and some talking points about what made them successful and how they were able to get to the top of the mountain. This year, the DIII teams were SUNY-Geneseo, Wisconsin-Stevens Point, SUNY-Oswego and National Champion St. Norbert. The DI teams were Boston College, North Dakota, Minnesota and National Champion Union.

There were some common themes among the coaches, including:

  • Goaltending has to give you a chance to win every night, and sometimes steal a few games
  • Leadership – all teams that make it to the Frozen Four have good leadership and a senior class that buys in
  • Losses are often used as learning experiences and opportunities to grow – every team had an experience that pushed them over the edge
  • Overcoming Challenges – every team faces challenges, the Frozen Four teams really overcame them with poise and aplomb
  • Every team seemed to have an identity that the players and coaches bought into and embraced – they moved forward with this identity and believed in it

Some team-specific notes:

Union spoke a lot about how their previous experience in the Frozen Four helped them to stay focused on the task at hand. Their first time, they were excited to go to the Frozen Four and were wide-eyed and soaking it all in. This year, they had a hunger to win and an understanding of what that took. The veterans had seen it and done it, so it was no longer a brand new thing.

BC had a very talented offensive team. They had a tough weekend early in the year where they tied and lost to Minnesota. This early setback challenged the team and helped them to understand where the bar was in terms of being a successful team.

St. Norbert built their culture through using peers. The players help to set the standards and then they are responsible for holding their teammates accountable. They have a leadership that includes the captains and one leader from each class, they meet to talk about academics, social life, etc.

AHCA Convention

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the American Hockey Coaches Association Convention in Naples, FL for the fourth straight year. It is a great week filled with meetings, speakers, networking and a little bit of sun & sand.

I took pages of notes again this year and I’ll be running through them this week, featuring a new speaker and his talking points every day.

The Math of College Hockey Part 2

Yesterday’s post broke down the long odds faced by any player looking to play college hockey.  Taking rough numbers, I broke down the percentage of players that make it from the 17-18 year old age group to a college hockey roster.

That’s the breakdown of odds for EVERY player in a given age group. On a macro level, that represents the odds for any player. There are a number of other things that may limit a player’s ability to move on to the next level.

  • Academics – At least 20% of NCAA hockey schools have high admissions standards for their athletic programs. Players must be achievers in the classroom and on their standardized testing. What does this mean? C’s in school won’t cut it – these schools are looking for B’s and higher, as well as strong test scores. A lack of effort and desire in the classroom will severely limit your ability to play NCAA hockey
  • Position & Shot – You’re a defenseman? A team already has 8 defensemen in their program? Unfortunately they’re probably not looking to add another one. While this is unpredictable, schools won’t look to have too many players at any one position. Teams also look to have a balance of left and right shot players – it’s not desirable to have all your forwards or defensemen shoot on the same side. Variety allows for different looks and options in the tactical game.
  • Scholarship $$ – DI scholarship schools are allowed to offer up to 18 scholarships. Hockey is an equivalency sport, this means that they can split up 18 full scholarships among as many as 30 players in any one given year. The players that are getting the most money are the top-6 forwards, the can’t miss studs, the starting goaltenders, etc. More of a third through fifth line player? That’s fine, just don’t expect to have a lot of $$ thrown your way.
  • Team Need – There are a lot of players out there that can play at the next level. Coaches and programs are always looking for different things when it comes to their recruits. Sometimes a school might be looking for a big, physical winger. Another year they need a playmaking center. If you don’t fit that mold, they probably won’t recruit you too hard. It doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough, it just means you don’t fit their needs.

At the same time, it is easy to look at the numbers and think they look a little off. After all, there are teams out there with 10-12 DI commitments and some DIII players as well. How is that the case if so few players make it to the next level?

  • The pyramid factor – teams and leagues differentiate themselves as you move up the ladder. After the U18 level, players begin to mix age groups more frequently. Junior hockey combines players as young as 16 with players as old as 21.
  • Elite programs attract elite players – the more a midget or junior program wins, the more players are attracted to that program. The same thing happens with leagues – the more players move on to NCAA hockey from a league, the more players are attracted to that league. Those teams and leagues are now able to take a higher caliber of talent
  • Pace of play – the biggest question mark that coaches have about players making the jump to the next level is their ability to play at a high speed. Young men playing college hockey are in peak physical condition. The game is played at a high speed and with a lot of energy. Players who play at lower levels may have all the tools to play at the college level, but they are not tested to play with pace. For this reason recruiters and scouts will wait until that player is moved up to a higher level (playing against other recruited players) before he is recruited – this allows the scouts to do their jobs with a greater level of certainty that the player can succeed.

Becoming a college hockey player is a journey that starts for many at a very young age. Sometimes it leads to a conclusion with a scholarship offer to a Division I school. Other times it results in an offer to play club hockey at one of the hundreds of schools that offer ACHA hockey. Regardless of what the college level brings, players can learn a lot about life and themselves from the journey to college hockey. Never limit yourself or your chances to play at the next level during the process. Doors open and close in a matter of days and the last thing you want is to be shut out of any opportunity at all. If you’re one of the lucky few that is being recruiting to play NCAA Varsity Hockey, embrace the experience and enjoy the ride, no matter the level. Your four years in college will be over before you know it.

The Math of College Hockey

How hard is it to play college hockey? Let’s do some very rough math.

Assumptions: On average, every college team is bringing in 7 new players per season (7 players in a class x 4 classes = 28 players). For the sake of these calculations, we are going to assume that all college hockey players come from the United States (we know this is not true, so the odds will be lower than seen here). We will also look at one age bracket to get a better feel for what a recruiting pool looks like.

In 2012-2013, USA Hockey had 28,961 registered members at the 17-18 age level (midget major). Let’s assume that this is our talent pool.

There are 59 Division I hockey programs. There are 74 Division III hockey programs. This gives us a total of 133 hockey teams.

Assuming a class of 7, there are 413 Division I freshmen and 518 Division III freshmen every year. A total of 931 freshmen across the country.

IF all players in college hockey came from the midget major level in 2012-13, the odds of playing Division I hockey stand at 1.42% and college hockey overall are 3.21%.

You could make the argument to double those numbers, as players spend two years at the midget major level. Doing that gives a player in any given birth year a 6.43% chance of playing college hockey and a 2.83% chance of playing Division I college hockey.

This fails to take into account the roughly 30,500 Canadians playing at the midget major level in any given year – essentially cutting the odds in half (Hockey Canada reports an overall registration level that is 1.0528 times larger than USA Hockey – I multiplied the USA Hockey 17-18 registration number by this variable). College hockey is also becoming increasingly diverse, with players from Europe growing in number every year.

The takeaway? It is extremely hard to be recruited to play college hockey. College hockey as a whole is a high level of play with very talented student-athletes. The pyramid only gets smaller as you go up. Appreciate the opportunity and enjoy the journey – you’re one of a select few who will ever get the chance.

Outdoor Games

When Sidney Crosby scored the shoot out winner in the first ever Winter Classic it ended a game and launched a new era in the sport. The NHL now hosts the Winter Classic every year on New Years Day. A great event for television and for the host city. They have also launched the Stadium Series, a spinoff where other teams will be able to play outdoors, although under lesser fanfare. College Hockey has attempted to join in on the fun, with Frozen Fenway being a regular event, and Games being played recently at Comerica Park and Soldier Field, among others.

The question lingers: is it too much? Have outdoor games become watered down?

My answer: it depends on your perspective.

As a Frozen Fenway participant myself (UMass in ’11), I believe that the experience is something beyond your wildest dreams, regardless of television or attendance. Most hockey players I know have played on a pond at one point in their lives. You rig up some nets, find a puck and as many of your friends that know how to skate and play until the sun goes down. No boards, no refs, no clock. Just hockey.

As we move on in the game, the structure, rules and coaching have a greater impact on how we understand “hockey”. Playing an outdoor game is an opportunity to mix the hockey we grew up playing with the structured sport we play now. It’s a chance to get back to your roots as a player and just enjoy playing the game.

Kids imagine themselves scoring the game winner in Game 7 when they’re out on the pond. We not ever imagined that we would be playing hockey in a place like Fenway Park. The chance to do something of that magnitude in that kind of environment is a memory that will last a lifetime. Win or lose, the chance to practice and play with the stadium and the city around you is an absolutely amazing experience. Green Monster to your left, Peskys Pole to your right, the pitching mound between you and the locker room. Getting dressed in stalls used by Papi, Pedro, and any number of visiting All-Stars. Eye Black, Toques, and the environment – wind, setting sun, breathing steam,

Does the crowd matter? It is noticeable on the ice, but you can’t tell if there’s 33,000 or 37,000 people in the stands. You don’t pay attention to those things as a competitor. I spoke with some coaches this week that have been at Fenway with less than 10,000 and they all loved the experience. Outdoor games are unforgettable for those most intimately involved in the game. The “student-athlete experience” is second to none.

So again, are outdoor games losing their luster? I think not. At its roots, hockey is a game that is meant to be fun for all involved – it’s easy to get too wrapped up in the seriousness of it. Outdoor games bring us back to the roots. Playing hockey is about achieving dreams and making memories that will last a lifetime. There are few memories greater than playing outdoors, under the lights, in an official game, in a world-famous stadium. It’s something that the players involved will cherish for the rest of their lives.