5 Warning Signs to Be Mindful of When Choosing a Junior A Program

 

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With heightened competition for talent between leagues such as the BCHL, CCHL, OJHL, AJHL, NAHL and USHL, it is extremely important to factor in all available information (subtle or otherwise) when deciding which league and team to commit to. With protection regulations in place to prevent players from jumping from one team or league to the next, you want to make sure you’re going into the right situation.

You will have opportunities to attend camps and visit with junior A programs before you make your decision on where to play. During this time, you will get the opportunity to meet coaches and GMs and talk with returning players. Use this time to ask questions and be mindful of the warning signs.

Once you commit to a junior A team, it becomes very difficult to move to another team if you discover that it isn’t the best fit for you. With that in mind, here are 5 important warning signs to be aware of before signing a card to play junior A:

1)      No Coach Can “Get” You a Scholarship

One of the most common lines I’ve heard junior A coaches say is: “Sign here and I’ll get you a scholarship.” This is an immediate red flag. I’ve been involved in junior A as both a coach and a player, and have played in the NCAA, and I can tell you without a doubt that players get themselves scholarships, not coaches. When a coach drops this line, he has just tipped his cap to the fact that his ego is bigger than his talent for developing players.

There are several subtle themes this simple line exudes: control, power, and delusion. As a parent, you have to remember that you are entrusting this man with your developing teenage son and that once he signs that card, his biggest influence will be a man that just hinted that he has the power of god. We all know how dangerous a man who thinks he can play god in hockey can be.

2)      Are You a Good Fit for the Program?

As important as it is to determine if a team is a good fit for you, it is more important to determine if you are a good fit for the program. Good junior A programs often embody a specific culture and play a specific system. And good programs aren’t going to change their style to fit an incoming recruit, no matter how good they may be.

As a hockey player, you have a specific style. If you are a dynamic offense forward or a run-and-gun defenseman, going to a team that plays the trap and focuses on winning games 2 to 1 isn’t likely going to be a good fit for you. There is nothing wrong with rounding out your game and adding important attributes to your strengths, but changing what makes you stand out isn’t beneficial. If you’re a great skater and puck handler, you want to be in a situation where you can showcase these talents.

Remember, the main priority at this level is to develop, excel and move on. Putting yourself in a situation to succeed isn’t selfish, it’s smart.

3)      The Two-Page Roster Rule

If the team’s roster from the previous season requires two pages just to fit it on, it’s a tell-tale warning sign that there are likely some underlying issues with the program. Whenever you look at a roster and see more X’s than a game of tic-tac-toe, it usually means you’re looking at a “What have you done for me lately” program that puts more value in winning than developing players and moving them on. At the pro level, c’est la vie. At the Tier II junior A level, it’s essentially counterproductive.

There are some exceptions to having a lot of X’s on your roster—injuries do happen—but it isn’t often that you see that many long-term injuries at the junior A level. More than likely, X’s in abundance mean turnover. And turnover quite often means you have a coach and GM who spend most of their days watching the major junior waiver wire, looking for upgrades, rather than developing plans to work with the talent they already have.

4)      The Major Junior Ratio 

The biggest factor for a player looking to get noticed is ice time. If a player doesn’t play key minutes, it’s hard to justify offering them a 4-year, $200,000 scholarship. Junior A teams that have a tendency to scoop up major junior castoffs or load up on overagers with major junior experience tend to be tough places for NCAA hopefuls to develop.

Most players with major junior experience are hot commodities at the Tier II junior a level and not many of them are going to go play for a team where they aren’t being guaranteed first line and top special teams minutes. For NCAA hopefuls, this means that there is likely one key spot taken up for each player on a team who has experience at the major junior level. Whether they deserve the key opportunities over other players or not, the major junior-experienced players are going to play. It usually takes a few promises (wink, wink) to secure the services of a coveted former major junior player.

If this ratio reaches a level that bumps you out of the top 6 forwards and top 4 defencemen, then you’re not exactly in the ideal situation to be noticed by NCAA recruiters.

5)      The Star Loser

It’s true that top players move on. By saying “top players” I mean players who play those aforementioned key minutes and make an impact, whether it’s by winning battles, faceoffs, and blocking shots or scoring lots of goals and being really hard to shut down. As important as it is to be a player who is an “impact player”, it is as equally important to be an impact player on a relevant team. It’s no secret that successful teams tend to move more players on. The deeper into a season you play, the more opportunity there is for exposure and the more opportunity there is to show how you can compete against stronger competition on bigger stages.

That being said, it’s not beneficial to go play on the last place team because you know you’ll be guaranteed to play 30 minutes a night and get top special teams minutes. If you’re losing 10 – 2 every night and scoring two goals a game, it won’t matter because nobody will be watching. Nobody wants to watch a last place team get blown out, and that includes NCAA programs.

Jamie McKinven
Author / Blogger at glassandout.com
Jamie McKinven, author of “So You Want Your Kid to Play Pro Hockey?” and “Tales from the Bus Leagues,” is a former professional hockey player who played in the NCAA, ECHL, CHL and Europe.

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