Most of the misconceptions in junior hockey today revolve around what NCAA programs look for in a recruit. Having coached at the Tier II Junior ‘A’ level, I’ve heard them all. I’ve had kids I’ve coached tell me, “My advisor says I need to score 30 or more goals to get a sniff from a low end D1 program and 40 or more to attract some of the top programs.” I suppose we’re to assume Red Berenson and Jerry York are sitting in their office on their computer, scouring stat sheets and prepping letters of intent accordingly.
Another misconception that commonly rears its ugly head goes something like this: “This is my last year of junior. I don’t want to finish my checks or block shots because I could get hurt. Besides, there really isn’t any hitting in college anyway. I need to focus on putting up points.” This is the misguided perception that college is a run-and-gun level that is all about finesse. The reality is college hockey is intense, physical, and highly strategic. With only 30 – 40 games per season, teams have more time to recuperate and recharge between weekend matchups and spend their weekdays prepping meticulously to face specific opponents.
The following is a list of ten important things that NCAA scouts look at in a recruit before making a massive financial investment in a player.
One particular stereotype about college hockey – the belief that you need to be able to skate well – is in fact true. The biggest detractor from committing to a “good” junior player often comes down to skating ability. Scouts will often say, “I like the kid. He thinks the game well and can play, but I worry about his skating. I’m just not certain that he can keep up at the next level.” The fact is, the difference in speed is the largest between the tier II Jr. ‘A’ level and NCAA Division 1. I remember my first captain’s practice like it was yesterday. After about 10 minutes, I was almost ready to cut myself. The players were so much faster and stronger than I was used to. The speed was the biggest factor I noticed right off the bat.
2. Skill & Ability
Whatever level you strive to achieve in hockey, your skill set – puck handling, shooting, passing – is going to be a staple in getting you to the next level. You need to be able to execute and your individual skills will always shine the brightest. Just like skating ability, if you can’t show that you have elite skills, you simply won’t get your name circled.
3. Hockey Sense
The much talked about hockey sense is a critical attribute that scouts look for in a player. When making the massive jump from tier II to the NCAA, the transition is smoother for players who exhibit a high level of hockey IQ. When the speed of the game picks up, the window of time you have to process the game begins to close rapidly. Players who can make quick, effective decisions, will experience more success. The skill of being able to read the game and adapt is invaluable to the success of a hockey player.
When building a team, the first thing a coach does is build a culture. Creating a culture for a successful NCAA program begins with attracting players who have a deeply engrained hatred of losing. It is that competitiveness – the warrior mentality – that all great players possess. It is why big game players are big game players. They rise to the challenge and play their best when the stakes are high. If you were building a team, wouldn’t you want a group of players who will go through a wall for you, the program and each other?
5. Attention to Detail
This section goes hand in hand with Hockey Sense. Scouts will often keep a keen eye on situations that unfold in a game. They look to see if a player is aware of the small details. If he’s a center, does he realize that he’s being matched up on offensive zone draws and that the opposing center always tries to win the draw on his backhand? How is he going to adapt? Is the player aware of the clock and how much time is left on the penalty kill or powerplay? Does the player notice that the goalie has bad rebound control and is he using this fact to his advantage? Little details that can help a team get an edge are something great players will pick up on throughout a game. Is the prospect aware of these details and is he able to adapt quickly and use the information to his advantage?
6. Body Language
This is one of the most important sections. Since most NCAA recruiting budgets are tight and schedules are busy, coaches and assistant coaches may only get one chance to see a kid play before deciding whether to add them to a shortlist. First impressions are everything. If a scout comes to watch a player who screams at referees, smashes his stick off the glass, slumps his shoulders and shakes his head the whole game, first impressions of the kid are going to be that he is a problem and a distraction. He may just be having a bad game where frustrations got the better of him. Unfortunately, it will probably be the only game the scout will ever see the kid play.
7. Leadership Traits
Since signing a player to a letter of intent usually means a four-year financial commitment, NCAA programs want to make sure they are getting the better end of the deal. The dream recruit for every program is the kid who plays four years, progresses from day one through graduation, becomes captain in his senior year and leads the program to national glory. When recruiting, coaches are always trying to find the best complete option or fit for the program. You want a team full of leaders. To be a leader doesn’t mean you have to wear a letter on your chest. A leader sacrifices for his team by blocking shots and being there for his teammates. It might be something as simple as giving the goalie a pep talk after a bad goal or throwing an arm around a slumping rookie who just made a costly mistake. Leadership traits can be displayed throughout games, on and off the ice, and in some of the most subtle moments.
When I was talking to schools when I was 18, 19 and 20 years-old, almost every school asked me the same question. “What is your first priority in life right now?” It is an important question for a coach of an NCAA program to ask because the answer often says a lot about the player’s desire. The quick and short answer should be, “Hockey.” This makes a clear statement that you want to be a hockey player and that you will do whatever it takes to make this dream come true. They can see from the transcripts and SAT scores that you are smart. They likely already spoke to your coach and know that you have strong character. What they are looking for now is if you have the desire to do whatever it takes to be a hockey player. They want to know if you live and breathe hockey; that it’s not just something fun to do. The biggest recruiting tool programs have is their NHL alumni list. Players want to go where they have the best chance to achieve their dream of playing in the NHL, while earning a valuable degree at the same time. With this in mind, programs want to recruit and harvest players who have the best shot at becoming pros when they leave campus. They’re looking for that insatiable hunger to become a pro.
Character is one of the most commonly used phrases in sports when describing the intangibles of great players. Character, in sports, embodies a combination of determination, ethics, compassion and leadership. Coaches often make reference to character when describing a player’s ability to bring a team together. Camaraderie is a big ingredient in success and character is right at the heart of it. In the business world, character describes an employee’s invaluable contribution to workplace culture and morale. All too often teams will falter due to inner turmoil and separation within the dressing room. It is important to recruit players who fit the established culture; players who are likely to buy in.
10. Academic Ability
Since the essence of collegiate athletics revolves around athletes being STUDENT-athletes, it should come as no surprise that academic ability is a major priority. With strict GPA levels to maintain and a tiresome workload requiring finely-tuned time management skills, being a Division 1 athlete comes with necessary obligations. If you can’t meet the grade in high school while living at home with mommy and daddy, chances are you aren’t going to even come close when you land on a busy campus with tougher classes, harder practices and training sessions, combined with heightened expectations and stress. The best advice I ever received came from my first Jr. ‘A’ coach who said, “If you focus and work hard in the classroom, it will carry over onto the ice.” This creates a personal standard that will help you to achieve goals seemingly beyond your reach.