About Next Season: The Elephant in the Room
Come January, what were once just quiet murmurs uttered only occasionally in the dark corners of the rink suddenly starts to come out in the open.
Who's going where next season?
Having 3 kids playing hockey now, I'll say it again, I'm continually seeing history repeating.
Names change but little else does.
I've seen this before.
But here's the thing with youth hockey. Junior hockey, even.
It's really, really, REALLY difficult to make an educated decision about NEXT season when you're only halfway through THIS season.
I've been witness to some really elaborate plans where, like, 10 super unlikely things all have to fall into place for the idea to even get off the ground.
Even still, parents are all in.
I'm just biting the insides of my cheeks. Nodding.
My kids have been on teams that have had a mass exodus -- like, 8 players left. Decimated the roster.
Some families were vocal about it, some were recruited away, and others just disappeared quietly.
They've also been on teams where an entire line (or more) shows up from another organization.
And on more than one occasion, we've even been to "open" tryouts where no one at the tryout actually makes the team. Those are always fun.
That's competitive sports. You never really know how it will all unfold ... especially in December.
My advice is to keep it quiet.
Like, stop telling your kids about your plans cause they sing like canaries -- the banter my kids pick up in the locker room leaves my jaw on the floor sometimes.
We've had kids convinced they're playing NCAA D1 next season...as a 9 year old. Um, okay?
And be patient.
Wait until the tail end of the season, like March, to really weigh your options and, you know, start pursuing them.
Most importantly, though, keep it simple.
The past couple seasons I've caught wind of some doozies. Like, this coach we know is going to take over this program over there and bring us into the fold.
I mean, I'm an advocate of finding a coach that gets the most out of your children and to follow them wherever they go. That's true.
New coaches in a program often do bring a set of players in with them -- following the coach, like I'd advise. It's like a package deal -- insta-team.
Really competitive teams -- peewee and older, generally -- often use this method of acquiring an established coach from another organization to replace the bottom 3 on their roster with a new top 3.
I've seen it time and time again -- and it works. It's like a ladder to a more and more talented team.
But, to date, not one of these plans, hatched so early as December during the current season, has come to fruition -- they're just too complicated.
Actually, one did.
A group of parents with a pie in the sky idea ended up as independent team without a league and struggled to find ice time or anyone that would play against them.
Yeah, that worked out well...
So, yeah, ride out the rest of the season with your current team. By late February, start getting an idea of what other players are planning to try out to create a picture of what may come to fruition where you are.
Come March, act on it.
Now, blind loyalty, these days, to a program can hurt you or leave you on a roster that isn't what you expected.
I mean, no matter how you slice it, every season is almost always a leap of faith.
So, don't leave all of your eggs in a single basket either...
I've seen that happen too -- really good hockey players that are blindsided without a team to play for.
(Must confess -- all of our eggs are in one basket this year. We barely even kicked tires elsewhere... Shame on me for not having a back-up plan...)
Within the first couple weeks of March, though, if you're still concerned that you might be on the wrong side of the fence, things should start to become really clear really quickly...
So, where should you play next season?
Like, what should be the top factors in making a sound decision? Here's what I think!
Coaching should be the top draw at all levels. ALL LEVELS.
You want a coach that has high expectations and pushes your child beyond their comfort level and that has a track record of producing players that play the way you'd like your son or daughter to play.
I wouldn't even debate it.
2. ConvenienceIt has to be do-able for your family's schedule. Your entire family.
You shouldn't be routinely pulling your kids out of school early for practice. You also shouldn't be denying any of your other kids’ opportunities to do extracurricular things because of another kid's hockey commitment either. Hey, I know we all have favorites but let's not make it obvious.
It is possible to find the right balance.
These parents driving their children in excess of an hour, multiple times per week, back and forth from practice, driving past 10 other solid hockey programs closer to their home, have their priorities mixed up, I think.
Unless, of course, the coaching is that good! See above.
3. Gut Feeling
Does it feel right? Is it the right fit? Is it the right level of commitment -- both effort wise for your son or daughter and time wise for you?
If it just doesn't feel right...it's wrong. Don't do it.
Trust your gut.
It's horrible to say but having ended up on teams with players that are bullies or parents that suck the air out of the room or add tension where there shouldn't be any have made me more aware of how important a positive locker room environment is.
If a player or parent like that is trying out for the same team -- and you know firsthand how detrimental to a season they can be -- move that team down a notch on your list.
The size of the roster should also be a consideration too. I've never really been one to complain about ice time but if there are 15+ skaters on a mite aged team, yeah, you might want to look elsewhere.
At the same time, kids usually like to play with their friends. If 10 of your son or daughter's friends are all playing on the same team, well, it's a pretty simple decision to make. Remember -- it's not your team, it's your kid's team.
I know, in the past, I may or may not have said that the league doesn't really matter. Go ahead, call me out.
At the youth levels, it doesn't matter so much and I'll stand by that. I mean, you know if you're in the right league after a season or two of experience or even a single tournament beyond the boundaries of your current league. The quality of the coach actually determines how good a player is more than the league they play in.
By peewee, though, most hockey parents that care about this sort of thing have a pretty good grasp on where each league fits in the grand scheme of things -- regardless of the hype.
By that, for New England and Mid-Atlantic based youth hockey, I mean the nuances of the EHF, AYHL, E9, BHL, EJEPL, NEPHL, and every other jumbled pile of letters you can imagine. Silly bragging rights -- at an age level where being on a winning team amounts to pretty much the cost of a plastic trophy -- is all they are.
But, as my kids get older, I'm finding a new appreciation for the programs that will give my children the most exposure.
Sometimes that's the team but often times it's the league too.
If prep school or college hockey are in your plans -- this matters more than anything.
Being a big fish in a small pond won't lead anywhere. It's important to play for a program that has the ability and opportunity to showcase your player across a wide area.
Choose the path of most exposure.
6. Program Depth
Not talking about the size of the program here or how many players they have under their umbrella so much as the number of age levels a program is able to field teams for.
Again, this should hold more weight for the parents that have had players playing for a number of seasons that are semi-confident that their kids aren't going to lose interest in playing the game anyway.
Don't put yourself in a position to get blindsided. There are an awful lot of youth hockey programs -- BIG ones even -- that don't extend beyond peewee. Like, boom, you turn 13 and it's over. Total dead end.
A teenager might seem really far off in your household but, boy, it comes up on you really quickly.
When I was 13, I was just going into 7th grade. We didn't have a middle school hockey team. My town didn't even have a high school team.
If I'd played for a program like that, my hockey career would have ended right then and there. Actually, it did.
Same situation rings true for my kids today -- there isn't a school team to play for.
So give the programs that field teams from mite to juniors -- without any gaps -- a little bit more consideration. Chances are, they have a development progression that won't leave your player high and dry before they're ready to move on to something else.
I know, it's like cost is unimportant to me having it this far down the list.
Some programs offer value, some don't. Some programs are all hype and, sometimes, it's hard to see through the BS. Others seem barebones but are actually really great.
The program my kids have been skating with is among the more expensive in our area but...they also offer the most value (when you also take into account the coaching, the league, and the convenience). You can read about that here.
It might sound silly to have the uniform in play -- and this high on the priority list -- but, for kids, looking cool matters.
There are a few programs in our neck of the woods that play in glorified practice jerseys with iron on numbers.
One team even has reversible jerseys. Yeah, no. Just no.
Another town league team has the sharpest uniforms I've ever seen at the youth level. Fully sewn logos, names, numbers, sleeve numbers, shells with stripes on them -- the full nine yards. Even for mites.
Do those kids feel like NHL superstars on game day? You bet they do!
When we first got started with my oldest, I showed him the uniforms of the 3 closest local teams he could play for and let him pick. I didn't try to nudge him one way or the other. As expected, though, he picked the team with the best uniform.
When you look like a pro, you tend to play more like one too.
9. Team Reputation
For the older kids, once you've been around the block a few times in the whole youth hockey thing, you start to pick up on team reputations.
Some programs produce amazing skaters. Some programs, instead, produce kids that can finish on 100% of their breakaways. Some are really defensive minded and others seem to run up the score needlessly every chance they get.
Some teams shorten the bench even when the score isn't close. Some just roll lines even when the game is on the line. Some teams have overflowing trophy cases. And there are plenty of teams that gain notoriety for being dirty.
And I can think of two or three programs that everyone claims to know uses ineligible players simply to win games. It is what it is.
And, really, some are just known for playing in the worst rink ever. Or the coldest. Yeah, don't play for either of those two.
Some programs find themselves classified as a continuous dumpster fire year over year -- unfairly or not. Others are known for the amount of alcohol their parents can imbibe. And those same teams are usually the ones known for being unruly in the stands too.
None of those things even have anything to do with hockey... Mmm...conflict.
But all of these things should weigh into your decision.
Like, what? Really? This is a factor?
Well, if you have multiple children playing hockey, or participating in any activity, yes, it does matter.
One of the programs in my region offers a good fit for all three of my kids...but the building they play out of doesn't have LiveBarn. I'm not a fan of missing ANY of their games -- but it happens when you have multiple children with games and events all over the place. You can't possibly make every game.
With LiveBarn, though, I'm able to catch every single home game -- and practices too -- and that's important to me.
This kind of overlaps with who's on the roster but it's a proven fact that people with common interests tend to congregate. That also tends to lead to team reputations too.
But really, from the outside, if there's a program out there that you know has a lot of great people within it, that's a perfect landing spot.
Every program has great people...you should just give more weight to the programs that have...well...more of them. It makes for a much more pleasurable and less stressful experience.
Cause, really, how ridiculous is it that we're all stressing over where our kids will play hockey next season?
Think about that...
It's crazy. Do you think your parents gave more than a second of thought towards what town soccer team you'd play for next fall in the 80's and 90's? Probably less than a second.
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Agree? Disagree? Let me know -- I love the feedback from all angles!