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.
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.