2024 Girls Hockey Hockey Tryouts Minor Hockey Player Development Youth Hockey

10 Tips for Youth Hockey Tryouts

Tryout season has begun in both the United States and Canada. Having now gone through the process from 10U all the way up to 19U now, I have seen many of the different situations that occur at this time of year. The entire process was non-linear with lots of bumps along the way. Things didn’t always work out perfectly in the short term, but it all worked out in the long term. Based on our family’s experience, here are some tips for this year’s tryout season:

1. Player development is more important than winning games

Regardless of what age or level of youth hockey you play, it is 100% more important for your player to improve as much as possible rather than winning games.  Now, losing sucks and winning championships can certainly help with exposure.  But unless you are old enough to be recruited to the next level, given a choice between playing on a winning team, but not getting better or losing but taking major steps in your development – it should be a no-brainer which one to take. 

2. The best coach should be the highest priority in deciding where to play

There are many many factors in deciding where to try out and play, including distance from home, cost, practice and game schedule etc. But the most important should be to find the best coach that will develop your player the most. 

3. Try not to be the best or worst player on the team

All things being equal, you want to be in the middle of the pack player on a team  – not the top or the bottom. Although or one season it is okay to be at the top or the bottom. Being the best means you may not be challenged as much as you are capable of. And being the worst can cause lots of frustrations. If you are in the middle, that is a great opportunity to work your way up the lineup if you can.  Of course all players want to be on the power play and penalty kill.  A good coach will cycle through all the lines on a team. 

4. Politics is a fact of life

Like it or not, there is politics in tryouts.  Just accept it for what it is and recognize that it may or may not work in your favor. Wasting energy on why a player was put ahead of yours is not going to be productive. The reality is that there is politics at every level of hockey especially at the district/provincial and national level. Just try to be the best player you can be and let the chips fall where they may. If you are that close to making or not making a team, then that is something that is within your control for next time by just getting better.

5. The most important training has already taken place

The last week of training before tryouts won’t likely be the difference between making a team and not. While there are small things that can help a player succeed at tryouts – the things that will most impact their level of play and success at tryouts will have taken place during the months leading up to tryouts. There shouldn’t be a need to spend 3 hours each night at the rink the week before tryouts.

6. Coaches are also evaluating the parents

Many coaches are judging parents as much as the kids. Nothing wrong with getting to know the coaching staff and how they plan to run the team. Also, it is important to make sure that you share the same philosophies on how the coach plans to run the team. But be aware that the coach is also evaluating if you will be a “high maintenance” parent.

7. Tryouts may not actually be tryouts

As kids get older (i.e. U14 and above), it’s okay that the coach already decided on many if not all of the players who will make the team. Tryouts are just a point in time.  Depending on the club, many coaches run “development camps” leading up to tryouts. This way they can review players over an extended period of time.  In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with them using that evaluation period to already decide if they want a player on their team or not.

8. Many clubs make money on tryouts – don’t waste yours

Be wary of some clubs who use tryouts as a way to make money.   There are many clubs who charge several hundred dollars for players to tryouts and will accepts 3-4 times as many players to try out as they have spots.  While occasionally trying out for the “experience” or “getting more ice time” might make sense, you should know if your player has a real chance of making the team before you show up.  Don’t waste your money on attending a tryout when that money would be better spent on a lesson or two with a skills coach.

9. Coaches aren’t perfect

Don’t expect perfection from coaches.  Your player isn’t perfect and neither are coaches.  Each club has a different way of evaluating players – some as a group with  “objective” observers and some with just the coaching staff for a team.  No method is perfect, however some are more sophisticated than others.  Know before you show up what to expect and realize just like players and referees, coaches don’t always get everything exactly right. If you don’t what to expect before you show up to a tryout and know the pros and cons of how a club conducts tryouts, then you share some of the blame too.

10. Feedback is a gift

Ask for feedback in a professional manner after tryouts if you didn’t make the team.  If an organization really cares about youth hockey development they would be happy to provide additional insights as to why a specific player didn’t make the cut.  Take the feedback as a gift even if you disagree with the feedback.  Do not argue or make your case as to why you saw things differently. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you at least know why and could potentially take action on the feedback. Get better for your next tryout and try out for a team where your player would not be so close to making or not making the team.

Bonus: Hockey makes players better people

Not making a team can be very emotional and challenging.  But I guarantee, if you have a resilient player, it will all work out fine.  Both my kids did not make teams in youth hockey, but they still ended up playing at the highest level of hockey for their age group when they got older.  Take is as an good life lesson.

ICYMI: Watch this Episode on Girls Tryouts with Alyssa Gagliardi

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Top 5 Life Skills Developed  from the Hockey Recruiting Process

As a parent, I have now gone through multiple “hockey recruiting” processes.  Beyond just club team tryouts, we have been through hockey academy recruiting, college hockey recruiting and even the beginnings of junior hockey tryouts.  No matter how things worked out with each team/school being considered, I have repeatedly been pleased with the life skills my kids have learned from the experience.  When I look back when I was their age, it would be several years into my college days before I would get exposure to many of these important life events.

I thought I would codify my Top 5 life skills kids can learn from the recruiting process.

1. Sales & Marketing

Even if you are a top talent player, you still need to let teams and coaches know you are interested in their program.  Sending “cold emails” is a great skill to learn at any age – but getting this experience as a teenager is a pretty amazing opportunity.  Learning how to introduce and promote yourself is not easy, especially in writing.  Then to also persuade the audience/coach with a “call-to-action”  (e.g. set-up a call, come watch me play, look at my video) is about as real-life as it gets in the sales and marketing world.

Furthermore, taking some swings when you know you will likely strike out is another great lesson.  I know of a few players who reached out to coaches when they thought the teams wouldn’t be interested, only to find out they were interested and there were other reasons for them not contacting the player.  You never know if you don’t ask!

2. The recruiting process is imperfect

The last company I worked at focused on the corporate recruiting process.  Very few companies are great at delivering a great candidate experience.  Most organizations have flaws because of the complexity and coordination challenges in organizations that are considering dozens of potential employees.   The same holds true for hockey recruiting.  It is unfortunate the number of times I have heard from parents and seen first-hand a bad candidate experience.  Everything from never getting a response from a team, a coach ghosting a player after having a call and agreeing to next steps or just not being transparent/candid  happens all the time. The college recruiting process isn’t perfect because coaches aren’t perfect.  Many have not had regular company experience, so they may not be well-trained in hiring best practices unless someone taught them how. Not all of them care about closing the loop with players they won’t be making offers to.  Good thing to learn for a teenager to learn at this age, because it reflects the real world.

3. Rejection 

Every player gets rejected at some point. Whether it is not making a team or not getting an offer from a school.  All the best companies (Google, Apple, Amazon etc.) attract the best people and reject the significant majority of folks who want to work at these companies.  So even if your dream was to play at Wisconsin, or if you set very realistic goals as your top choice school, sometime there isn’t a match.  However, things almost always work out in the end. You end up where you were supposed to be.  Dealing with a major “hockey career” rejection in your teen years is not only something you will recover from, it will also make you stronger.

4. The importance of references and a good reputation

In the real world corporate recruiting process, hiring teams do reference checks.  This is even more important in a team sport like hockey. Coaches will find folks they trust who really know the players they are considering.  Once again, I can think of multiple examples where a connection to the coach (former coach or teammate, parent etc.) helped  create opportunities or finalize an offer.  As a player, having a good character and ensuring people of influence at every level can vouch for you, is a big deal.

5. Decision making – Having lots of good options

Finally, if things go well on both the hockey development and recruiting side, you will have options. Sometimes it will be easy to pick where you want to go.  But sometimes, you will be in the fortunate position to have many great options.  Figuring out all the different factors and prioritizing them across multiple opportunities can be both difficult and stressful.  You may be afraid to make a life-impacting mistake. Learning how to make these types of decisions is probably the most important skill to develop.  These types of situations come up all the time and figuring out which one-way door to choose is a phenomenal experience to learn at such a young age.

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What I Learned Attending My First Junior Hockey Main Camp

Last month, my 15-year old son was invited to the main camp of a NAHL team in Minnesota.  This was the follow-on event from a Summer Tryout showcase in June, hosted by several NAHL teams, in which my son was invited to attend the July main camp at the end of the showcase.  Here are some details that I learned from the camp:

  • The camp started with 8 teams of up to 22 players – each with 12 or 13 forwards, 6 or 7 D and 2 goalies
  • All the players at the camp were 2003-2007 birth years.  My son is a late 2007, so obviously, he was one of the youngest players at the camp.
  • Each team played 3 games consisting of two 25 minute periods with a running clock.
  • To keep things flowing, icings and most offsides were almost never called. And any puck which touched the netting and returned to the ice did not stop the play.  When the very odd penalty was called, a penalty shot was granted.
  • With 13 forwards, unless you started the game, a forward typically only got 6-8 shifts per game.  This was because everything eats into the running time, goals, faceoffs, penalty shots etc.  Most players were taking ~75 second shifts. So when you do the math with four lines, a forward only received 3-4 shifts per period. Not a lot of time to show what you can do.
  • After 3 games, the first players cut took place with the list of players making it to the next day posted on Instagram and Twitter.  The announcement just showed the team colors and numbers of players who made the cut – no names were listed.
  • Out of the ~160 players who started the camp, 99 players made the first cut. My son was on the list, so he would play 2 more games the next day.
  • The next day the players were then assigned to one of 6 teams. Once again each team had up to 22 players (13F, 7D, 2 G).
  • What was confusing to me was if there were only 99 players who made the cut and the teams reduced to 6, how could there be so many players on each of the 6 teams? That’s when things got real. What I learned was that the first part of camp did not include all the players on the team’s protected list. So about 30 players – made up of players from the past season, draft picks etc. were then added to the rosters of the 6 teams.
  • While there were a few players with half-shields (usually you have to be over 18 to play with a visor) playing the first couple of days of the camp, that number more than doubled for the second round.  In addition, I was impressed by how many of the players also had moustaches to enhance their hockey player look.
  • The age, skill and size of the average player went up dramatically from the first round of games. For one of the games, my son’s linemate was a 2003 player committed to play DI hockey.   The difference in size and skill was obvious. Man vs. boy.
  • While my son played well in both games, including a solid assist to set up the DI player’s goal, he clearly did not have the size or speed of the top players on the ice.  As a result, he made a few mistakes turning over the puck along the boards or missing passes when under pressure.
  • Following the two second-round games, we once again looked online at the end of the day and reviewed who made the next set of cuts. 
  • 81 players (out of ~130)  made it to the All-Star games with a separate 20 players moved to something called the Young Guns Game at the end of the next day.  My son was not selected for either games, so his tryout was done.
  • The next day the All Star games took place.  After they were done, 27 All Star cuts were assigned to the Young Guns Game.
  • We didn’t stick around for the last two days, so I can’t provide any details about the games (LiveBarn feed was blacked out after the first cut).
  • However, I do know that 44 players made the cut for the final All Star Game which included 6 goalies (couldn’t tell how many F vs. D).  Not sure if the team was finalized after the last game or if about 30 of the players then were invited to training camp for the final team cut.

 Some additional thoughts:

  • One real positive aspect of the camp was that the coaches made it clear that all players who were cut could reach out for feedback when the camp was over.  My son had a phone call with one of the coaches and received  helpful feedback (which was much more specific than what my daughter received has from the USA Hockey Camps)
  • This was a great learning experience for my son to see the level of play of the NAHL. The NAHL is known to be an older Tier II junior league with the average player age of about 19.5 years old. So seeing where my son needs to be in the next 2-3 years was an eye-opening moment for him and seems to be quite motivating to him.
  • This spring/summer my son received dozens of invitations to a variety of junior camps at every level (USHL, NAHL, Tier 3 etc.).  I have heard that unless you were drafted by the team or know that a team has specific interested in you, that most of these invites are just a way for teams to make money. I felt I could see this at the camp.  There probably wasn’t a need to have so many players at the first round of cuts with so many players on each team.  Just doing the math on the ~60 players who did not make the first cut @ $375/player is over $20K in the team’s pockets. That is on top of the money they made at the 3 summer tryouts.
  • Each player needs to decide what is right for them, but it is very easy to waste a lot of money (and time) attending multiple events. You need to be realistic about your odds of making a team and self-aware about how close you are to the level of play needed.  We went to see what the level was and learn from the experience – and now we know. And for the next couple of years I don’t expect my son to be trying out for many teams until we think he is ready and there is a reasonable chance he could at least make it to the final round of cuts (if not make the team).