Variety is the Spice of Life

As the level of hockey gets higher, so does the intensity of the recruiting process. Midget, prep, junior, college, and pro teams all recruit players for their rosters. While the offers are different at all levels (contract $$ at the pro level, scholarships for college, an opportunity to play in junior), the reality is that there is at least one person choosing how to build a roster and what types of players and people to fill that roster with.

There are thousands of choices when it comes to building rosters. What traits do you look for? What types of personalities? The list goes on, and regardless of level, you’re almost always sacrificing one thing in favor of another – the reality is that there is no “perfect” player.

One thing that I personally value in my roster is variety. Variety of playing styles, variety of personalities, but most importantly, variety of experience. I don’t want to have too many players from one specific background. This can be geographic, hockey, socio-economic, cultural, etc. The more breadth of experience I can add to my roster, the further enhance the experience of my players is going to be. When a young man who was born and raised in Boston and played prep hockey becomes close friends with a junior hockey player from Ontario, they have both grown as people. College is about growth and development both educationally and personally. By maintaing a diverse roster our players get to see and experience a wide variety of interests and points of view. They leave as better people with a much bigger worldview.

As a coach, a variety of experiences challenges me as well. I have to work to connect with people from different backgrounds, with different goals and different habits. It also creates a roster where there are many different players at our disposal to use in many different situations. A diverse roster brings in different playing styles and methods of play, further enhancing our ability to compete on the ice.

Variety truly is the spice of life. Surround yourself with people who are different. Challenge yourself to connect with others in new and meaningful ways. You will grow as a person (and as a hockey player).

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.

Systems vs Players

Do you build a system to fit your players or do you get players to fit your system? Sounds a little like chicken vs egg to me.

When building a system of play for your team, it is critical that the players on your roster have an ability to play that system. For example, don’t play a system predicated on a high level of hockey sense if you have very little hockey sense on your roster. Similar ideas with other systems as well – don’t utilize a speed based, north/south system with a slow roster, etc.

At the same time, you should have a system of play that you believe is more successful than others and you should attempt to build your roster to fit this system. If you like to play an offensive cycle game, you should build your roster with big and strong forwards who can use their body to possess the puck down low. If your breakout is based upon defensemen who can skate and make quick puck decisions, you should have those types of players on your team.

The bottom line is that you need to use a little of both when determining what type of system to play. Figure out what you like and how you want to play the game and then tweak it to fit your personnel. The best coaches are the ones who can adapt their system to fit the team they have while at the same time trying to build the team they want.

Diversity in the Game

Over the last two years, I’ve seen a lot of hockey played in a lot of different rinks around North America. I’ve seen it played by different age groups and ability levels. It quickly became apparent that while the game never changes in it’s objectives, the game is very stylistically different in different areas and leagues.

What areas of the game show the biggest differences? East/West vs North/South play, physicality, work ethic/attention to detail, skill/playmaking, pace of play.

Painting with a very broad brush, the game in New England is a very stop & start, gritty, North/South game. Canada tends to feature more skill/playmaking, East/West play, less grit but more big hits. The Central US centers around a much more disciplined, systemic game with good size and speed. Each region seems to have its elements that it does better than others (and some others that are less desirable). Even the junior leagues in each country have their own style of play.

Most coaches would agree that you want a mix of playing styles in your program. Optimally? Bring in some skill and playmaking from Canada, the work ethic and grit from New England, and some big, strong systems guys from the Midwest. Not only do these players bring different playing styles but they bring different life experiences. Your players will learn and grow from each other when a freshman from Ontario meets someone from Texas while hanging out in the room of a junior from Europe. Diversity enhances your team tactically and socially – a win on all fronts.

The Right Fit

Recruiting is as much about finding the right fit between player and program as it is about getting the most talented players. There is a number of reasons to choose School A over School B, or School B over School A. Facilities, academic reputation, financial aid/scholarship, coaching staff, winning, location, etc. The list goes on and on. Logic can dictate which school you choose to attend. Or you can trust your gut – your stomach will tell you when you’re at a school where you fit in and where you can find success.

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”

But who is going to work harder? A player who is convinced to go to a certain school by a coach or a player who goes to a school because it is the right fit? Finding players that fit the culture and mentality of your program are far more likely to help you have success than players that improve your talent level.

Happy players will go through a wall for you. Unhappy players will quit when it gets hard. Choose the right players over the best players.

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.