Where I had my first junior tryout. World's Biggest Hockey Stick, Cowichan Valley

Where I had my first junior tryout. World’s Biggest Hockey Stick, Cowichan Valley

Note: I realize I’ve been writing a lot about my own experiences in hockey lately. The summer is largely devoid of hockey news, and I have some behind-the-scenes knowledge that some people seem interested in while we wait for the season. I swear I’ll dial back the “me’s” and “I’s” when puck starts to ramp up again.

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During my senior year of high school I was 16/17 years old (December birthday), and still a bit of a mamma’s boy. I lived at home while captaining our Midget AA team, a group that would eventually bring home the first (and possibly still the only) provincial championship to Westside (West Kelowna minor hockey).

That final minor hockey season was followed by a summer of uncertainty. I was given opportunities to try out with a few WHL teams, a half-dozen BCHL teams or so, and pretty much every junior B team in the province. I was going to be playing hockey somewhere the next season, it seemed, it was just a matter of finding a place that both wanted me and would help me advance.

The only goal my family had for me was to get a college scholarship. That was the carrot dangled by junior hockey for us, but when a number of different teams think you might have a little value to them down the road, you start to hear a lot of different things, and the waters get murky. Promises of carrot-delivery aren’t uncommon.

When you have some opportunities like this, nobody tells you what to do if you aren’t an NHL lock. There are no courses, information pamphlets or guidance counselors, so we were more-or-less lost from the get-go. My Dad had experience with junior, but he was essentially fast-tracked to the NHL, sooo…minor hockey, WHL, NHL. Oh, the tough decisions he must have faced.

The main question we had, was who has a freaking clue about what it means to play for Team A versus Team B in some of these leagues? And when you commit to trying out with B, you miss the chance to try out with A, meaning even though you may be good enough to play at a certain level, you just flipped to the wrong page of the Choose Your Own Adventure, got cut and screwed yourself. A huge, HUGE part of advancing in sports is luck. Finding a good person who won’t lie to you helps, but that’s kinda luck too.

So, with no agent – ahem, family adviser – around, we just sat together and talked.

“Okay. The Kelowna Rockets offered you a tryout, and say you have a shot. We live in Kelowna. If you could make their team, how cool would that be? Their camp is on this date. That’s after a couple of these Junior A camps start, though. What if you go to one of those, do well…then what? What about this opportunity?”

“Okay, I think the best chances of making the BCHL are with the Cowichan Valley Capitals, the Langley Hornets and the Trail Smoke Eaters. What do we know about these cities? What are they saying about your chances? Which is closest to home? What are the rosters like? What are our odds in each city?”

“Okay, I should sign with a Junior B team as a safety option, right? Where in BC would be best? Revelstoke is nice and they tend to be pretty good. Campbell River tends to have a lot of success, and they’ve shown interest. Osoyoos is close to home, and they’ve got a nice building.”

I dunno, I dunno, I dunno.

These decisions can affect your life in major ways long-term and you know it, only you don’t have much information about each place unless you have one of those “involved” hockey parents who takes this junior hockey crazy-seriously (my boy’s gonna play in the big leagues, my boy’s gonna turn some heads) and makes gathering the information their life’s work. There’s just too many teams. And, there were plenty of players as talented as me who made the wrong choice, got the axe, and went home to watch lesser players play at a level they’d been cut from (a kid on my Midget AA probably had a higher ceiling than me, got some bad luck and missed out, and that’s just starting with my own team).

It doesn’t make it any easier for us good-but-not-agent-worthy types that the punishment for lying to kids is absolutely nothing. They can tell you whatever they want.

I remember sitting outside on the ferry to Cowichan’s camp, my first ever, listening to Jimmy Eat World with mom inside the boat, wondering what was ahead and if we’d made the right decision. Obviously things would have been different in my life had I turned to another page in the book, but how different?

What’s crazy is looking back and realizing that I should have been kinda scared, cause I knew even less than I thought I did about how to play real hockey and what the other players were going to be like (most seemed, to me at least, pro-hurting people).

Cowichan had told me to “tattoo their logo on my ass” during that summer. That’s verbatim, so I was sort of under the impression I was going to Cowichan to play for Cowichan.

I was not going to play for Cowichan. If I wasn’t cut during the first round of player releases, I was first when round two rolled out. And in a matter of days, I was back on that ferry thinking about how completely and utterly screwed I was.

It’s around this point that you realize you’ve never left home, it’s possible that no team will want you, and you haven’t really considered a back-up plan because playing another year seemed so likely. I mean, I always knew I’d try to go to college one way or another, but now I was looking at living at home and going to Okanagan College (now it’s a UBC!). There’s nothing wrong with that, I just pictured myself travelling around BC scoring goals playing puck for a few years. If I couldn’t come close to making a Junior A team, I certainly wouldn’t make a WHL team…maybe I’m not even good enough for Junior B? Who knows.

My first major junior camp was intimidating as all hell. The returning players acted like 10-year NHLers, we were in the brand new Prospera Place, and I had assumed I would get killed. I absolutely did not.

I scored, and I scored, and I scored. After three days we had a blue/white intrasquad game which they sold tickets to and a ton of fans (to me) should up for. I scored twice and my team won a pretty low-scoring game. They didn’t know what to do with me.

In the end, they needed me to play games. They couldn’t just give me a roster spot without seeing me play against other teams at that level. They needed more sample size. Buuut, if I were to play in so much as a single game, I’d forfeit a year of NCAA eligibility, which had been the ultimate goal for a long time for me. That hometown team carrot loomed pretty large, though.

At that time, I had heard that some teams would let kids play an exhibition game or two, and then they’d rip up the roster so that kids who got cut could go on to play college if they liked, without consequence. I had heard that maybe this were a thing that could be arranged. Nobody tells you what to do with these decisions, so we made the safe choice, and I reported to Junior B in Osoyoos with designs on graduating to Junior A the following season.

Things turned out peachy. I signed with the Vernon Vipers the next summer, and got my college scholarship after three years of junior, but it doesn’t always turn out so swell. Those first few years were tough, and bad luck occasionally swallows talent up before it gets a chance to blossom.

The challenges I faced early that first year led me to keep a journal of my stresses. I was drawing out depth charts, keeping personal stats, and writing out short-term goals almost every night, constantly worried I was about to get the axe and it was all going to come to an end. (It’s something to keep in mind with young players in the NHL – it’s not just the challenges of dealing with opponents at the physical level, there’s also the huge burden of it being your first few years away from home. Do you remember how you struggled in yours? I can’t imagine how hard it is for “import” players.)

Right now, there’s a lot of families with young players facing the same issues mine dealt with that summer. Things happened to turn out for us, and for that, I’m very grateful. The decisions aren’t easy. All you can do is turn to the page that seems most appealing on it’s face, and hope it doesn’t lead you to a dead end.

Comments (20)

  1. Great advice: “Finding a good person who won’t lie to you helps” . I would add, listen to what they say even if it is not what you want to here. Little Billy is your hockey angel but he isn’t a CHL player.

  2. Could you explain the process a bit more? Like, why can you play for Junior B but not Major Junior without losing NCAA eligibility? How are these things supposed to work? I’m a bit lost.

    • major junior is considered “professional” by the NCAA. All other tiers are not currently considered “professional”. If you age out of the CHL there is scholarship money available to go to a Canadian University and play. If you age out of the CHL and hove no pro tryouts (Europe, Central league, et.) offered than going to a University in Canada is a pretty good option to continue playing.

  3. Justin – personally, I’m loving the stories about your experience. It’s not a perspective we get to hear a lot, especially for Americans like me who didn’t grow up with the same level of hockey culture. I’d love to see more of them!

  4. “I realize I’ve been writing a lot about my own experiences in hockey lately. The summer is largely devoid of hockey news, and I have some behind-the-scenes knowledge that some people seem interested in while we wait for the season. I swear I’ll dial back the “me’s” and “I’s” when puck starts to ramp up again.’

    I would prefer to see these mingled in with the “hockey news” ones more often to be honest.

    • I agree. Justin, I love hearing about your personal experiences. No one provides the level of insight you do on life in pro hockey.

  5. You can keep the “I/me/my” stories coming as long as you want, as far as I’m concerned. They are one of the reasons this is my favorite hockey blog. Love the insight into the game and the life.

  6. I pass by that hockey stick every time on the way to Victoria, it’s probably the most noticeable thing about Duncan, aside from being annoyed that you’re hitting all the lights while driving through :P

    Great read Justin, for me it gives a really good sense of how, as a Canadian, people from around the community, rise up and get into the pro leagues. It’s crazy to hear about how someone you know went to high school with so-and-so who’s now in the NHL. It’s kind of cool to get a picture of how that all happens.

    • The junior hockey decision is a massive issue for kids not really old enough to make it. Lost of talent falls through the cracks at this stage.

      MIKE M – Absolutely, Canadian University hockey is an excellent brand of hockey. Highly entertaining and vastly underrated.

      I spent a summer working in Maple Bay, living in Duncan. Totem poles and the big hockey stick. the damn twi cinema showed the same movies all flippin’ summer!

      OLD FIRM:

      Is the Galaxy nightclub still going, just outside of town? nothing like a night at the “lixie

      SB

    • ahhh man, fuck those lights, i’m from Sooke ( where we have a grand total of 3 ) and driving up island sucks sooooo bad for those god awful 20 minutes.. and the worst part about duncan is, yer stuck in traffic in a major section of town, but every girl in fuckin duncan is ugly as shit, so you aint even got nothin to look at while yer sittin there

  7. Justin, I agree with all the comments posted – keep these stories coming, your perspective is what makes this site so distinctive.

    Would love to see you expand on those last few paragraphs on Junior hockey – the challenges, the lifestyle, positives and negatives, etc.

    • Agreed! I’m just enjoying Ken Campbell’s “Selling the Dream” and would love to hear more of the perspective from high-level young players. Sounds super stressful. We don’t hear enough about the role of luck, and about the vast majority of good players who never make it to the higher levels.

  8. This is great stuff JB, thanks.

  9. I so remember that ferry ride too Jus…wondering what the future holds for my son. So wanting to help you make the right decision. As you said, it all turned out ‘peachy”..and I am one proud Mom.

  10. I’ll echo the sentiments already mentioned above. Love the insider, experienced based articles. It’s the reason I found your articles so entertaining back when you were writing for puck daddy or whatever, and it’s the reason I followed you over here. You have a really great perspective happening over here and you shouldn’t apologize for it.

    its fucking great stuff.

  11. Justin’s insights (such as right here, alongside Cam’s stats and the other contributors show why this is one of the best hockey blogs around.

    • gotta disagree with you here.. JB is the only good part about this blog.. Cams stats are all friggin terrible, and have no place in hockey.. the weekend guys suck ass.. Lozo is a troll, i’m not sure who or what jo innes is.. Wagner is tolerable in small doses

  12. another great piece of read. thanks for keeping it lite for us office jocks.

  13. Oh man… this brings up memories (mind you I’m only 21, and jst finished a degree), but I was at the same starting point (w/o the major jr skates)- but my parents rlly didnt care about hockey, wanted me to go to school instead.
    Went to school, didn’t rlly play, then played with some low level pros that summer (Europe, ECHL, a couple AHL) realized how much I missed it… but by then it was too late and Jr B teams didn’t want an 18 yr old, who wasn’t quite fit and hadn’t played contact in over a year…

    Best thing to do is to try not to think about it… and try not to wonder what would have happened if I had really pushed in tht first summer….

  14. Justin, I love that you’re willing to be so personal about what your experience was.

    It reminds me of my own experience as a 16 year old, having to choose between two Junior C teams, making my decision, then being told by my former minor hockey association they would not grant me the release.

    I ended up losing spots on three teams because of that; both Jr C teams that wanted to sign me (both teams moved on once it became clear they couldn’t get me signed) and the Midget AAA team they wanted me to play for (because they’d picked their team in between all of this)

    My fallback was to play Jr D at age 16. Five years later, I played my last year of junior with the team that had originally wanted to sign me when I was 16, and we won the league (the only title in their history)

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