July 18, 2010

Junior hockey must be right place, right time

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

For most teenagers, graduating from high school and making the transition to college is one of the major milestones in life.

For athletes in sports like football, basketball and baseball, that transition is usually seamless. The star high school players either become scholarship athletes or walk-ons 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, and 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 one 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 delay in academics while they concentrate predominantly on hockey. Ultimately, it means a little later “start in life” for some as they take a hockey sabbatical. Most are willing to take the risk to achieve their goal of playing college hockey and getting a college education.

There is an opportunity to hasten the process. 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 apprenticeship. Others might just choose to move away from home to play junior hockey while they are still seniors in high school. Very few players have the option of living in the friendly confines of homeand attending their local high school while playing junior hockey.

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 his educational path?

It’s a tough question, with a lot of different answers – both right and wrong, depending on a lot of different variables relating to the player, and to the hockey playing and educational options available.

The college hockey world, like most college sports, is 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.

That is where junior hockey comes in. It is the laboratory, the training grounds to prepare players to play at the college level and beyond. Some junior leagues in Canada – the Western Hockey League, Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Ontario Hockey League -- consider themselves to be the assembly line to producing NHL 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 those leagues 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 hockey 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 very small hometown. It would always be there. It wouldn’t change. No, I don’t think it made my mother all that happy, but it 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 U.S. and Canada. How is a player to know which one would be a good fit, a place for him to succeed and grow? And, maybe more importantly, what is the right time to give it a try?

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 will arise and the good (or not good) decisions that they will need to make.

On the ice, they’ll need to thrive, not just survive. They should be one of the better players, in the top half of the team, and playing regularly. 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, is critical.

If all of those elements are not in place, it is probably best that the player stays at home, and waits for another time and another place. The right ones.

Lyle Phair can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com