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Rep hockey tryouts started last night.

So I am going to repeat a lightly edited version of what is easily the most popular post I have ever written: the FAQ on rep hockey try outs. This is version three of this over the years, and it really is just a cut-and-paste job but it is a worthy one. There is also a brief 2014 addendum at the very bottom worth reading, I think.

Literally hundreds and hundreds of people find this particular post every month so welcome, and here’s a little about us. Happy suburban Toronto family, two boys. One was a house leaguer (1996) the other (a 1993) relentlessly chased the dream to always try to get to a higher level.

Starting in rep at major peewee, Pad played AE, A, AA (in Oakville) and AAA (in the GTHL), then 200 games of junior A in the OJHL and the BCHL and a very brief stop in the CCHL. Next fall he will be playing university hockey.

What follows is some of what I/we have learned along the way. (Ironically, Pad, who never made a AAA team in Oakville, is now running some on-ice AAA tryouts for the local association. Smart move on their part.)

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How do you make a rep hockey team?

For parents, coaches and kids — kids, remember the kids? – it can be the most exhilarating, frustrating, uplifting and soul crushing experience imaginable.

I get more unsolicited questions from parents — in person or through the blog – about rep hockey tryouts than I get about anything else. Everyone wants to ensure a great experience for their child. No one wants to see their kid’s feelings hurt. No one has any control over any of that.

It’s pretty tricky stuff.

If you’ve already taken your kid to tryouts, then you already know the drill. But many of the families I deal with these days have kids who are novice to atom or in that range. And the whole thing feels a little foreign to them and they’re not sure what to do, when to do it, or what to expect.

So, here’s a rep hockey FAQ based entirely on my experience (I never coached rep hockey, just house league. I was just a rep parent. But I was always there. And that would be piece of advice number one. Be there. Always be there. Always. You cannot outsource this part of parenting.)

To the questions!

1.       If my son wants to play rep, how will I know if he’s ready to try out?

Ask his house league coaches and trust your own instincts. If your son looks like he’s competitive with the top half of the players in his division (red, or MD) then there’s no reason to not go – if he wants to. It doesn’t mean he will make a team. But he will fit in just fine and get to experience rep tryouts. Ice time is good. Rep tryouts have an unmistakeable buzz and electricity. Sort of a cattle call on skates. Have fun with it. But tryout at a level that is realistic. If he played house league last year, don’t subject him to a AAA tryout because that’s not going to end well.

2.       I heard that if you don’t get “on the rep track” early, you’ll never get on and you’ll play catch up forever. Is that true?

No. Wrong. False. My kid never played a game of rep until major peewee – and that was AE, the lowest level. Another fact: most kids who are playing AAA as novices, minor atoms and atoms will not still be playing AAA in minor midget and midget. Some won’t be in hockey at all. My advice would be to let a kid enjoy a season or too of real house league success and confidence building before worrying about rep. The option will still be there.

3.       I’ve heard rep is expensive. How bad is it?

Well, let’s start by saying when it comes to hockey, expensive is a relative term. Parents with kids on a top team in the GTHL – say from minor bantam through minor midget – can expect to pay $8000 a year or so just for registration. For the elite teams this number can more than double. Add hotels for tournaments, extra ice, skating coaches, gym fees . . . It can be pricey. The GTHL also has gate fees. $6 a head for anyone entering the rink, including players. So if a family of four go to see Johnny play – that will be $24 please, per game. By comparison, the MOHA fees are not bad at all. About $450 for basic registration and then add the rep assessment – an amount that varies depending on fundraising. A very few teams fundraise a lot of money and some cover their entire budget this way. But in general, you can probably expect to pay between $1500 and $2500 a year for rep hockey in Oakville. No gate fees.

4.       How bad is the time commitment?

Do you want your kid to go to The Show or don’t you? Kidding. Most rep teams will start hitting the ice in late August and ramp up from there. Some coaches will skate their teams all summer. My advice would be to find another team in such cases. Wayne Gretzky played baseball all summer. Brendan Shanahan played lacrosse. And your kid doesn’t need to skate all summer either. Recreational 3-on-3 is fine, but if your nine year old is sweating out suicides in July … hmmm. During the season, expect two games and two practices a week on average. Some weeks will be much worse, especially when you factor in tournaments. You’ll have to be at the rink at least an hour before the game, so if you have a roadie in Orangeville on a Monday night in January, enjoy! The time issue will change the rhythm of your house but you get used to it. Really. Plus, it’s not like you will have any money to do anything else anyway.

5.       How should we prepare for tryouts?

Show up. Bring gear. Kidding aside? Manage your son’s expectations, especially if it is his first time. I used to position it with Pad as an adventure that we shared. No expectations other than to experience something new and have fun. Hot chocolate afterwards. Great. And Pad got cut every single year in Oakville. At first he got cut back to house league. Then he got cut from A to AE. Then AA to A. Then AAA to AA. The system is a little perverse because even when you’re succeeding and moving up, you’re also being rejected and cut from whatever level is above you. The flip side of everything I just said is that over three seasons Pad went from House League to AE to A to AA, which is terrific success. But, he was still being cut at the same time. Unless you make AAA, of course. And if you do, great. Congrats. My kid never played AAA in Oakville and still has a chance to become a contributing member of society.  Counselling wasn’t required.

6.       How do they decide who makes the team? Who are “they”? Why do they want to make my son miserable?

Dirty little secret about tryouts: good coaches often HATE tryouts. The glow that comes with telling a kid he’s moving up from AA to AAA or that he made AE and will get his first Ranger jacket is never offset by the look on a kid’s face who is moving down a level. I know coaches who lose sleep over it. Friendships fracture over it. It’s hard and frankly, it’s why I have never considered coaching rep. I have no stomach for cutting kids. If you are lucky, your kid will get to play for a guy like that. Generally the rep coaches for each age group watch the tryouts together and build a consensus around who fits where. It’s an art, not a science. Sometimes bad decisions are made, though rarely for bad reasons. It just happens. When it comes to tryouts, 99 per cent of the people involved – maybe more – want to do right by 110 per cent of the kids and families, 120 per cent of the time. They really do. Be careful of the one per cent.

7.       How will my kid find out his fate?

Possibly useful real-life vignette #1:

The first time Pad was cut might have been when he was in atom, I think. He got cut, and he should have been cut. But he wanted to go and seeing his determination there was no point in talking him out of it. I set it up as an adventure and learning experience and we’d do it together. And we did. When he got cut – gently, and positively by a guy named Dave Stevenson– Dave concluded the short meeting by encouraging him to work on his game and “come back next year.” All Pad heard at the end was “come back next year.” And when we got past the gauntlet he looked up at me and smiled and said: “He wants me to come back next year!”I just smiled. “He sure does, buddy.” Not many kids have that kind of wiring.

More and more I understand that the older age groups post names on a wall of who is to come back to a certain tryout. When it gets down to the close cuts, sometimes phone calls are used – so that the kids can avoid The Walk of Shame. The Walk of Shame still exists in many centres, especially in younger age groups. Players and a parent line up outside a room at the rink. Each player goes in to see the coaches and get the news. Basically, you leave the dressing room where the post-tryout meetings are held with each player and you walk the gauntlet past other kids waiting to go in. If you got good news, you try to contain the happiness and you look like a grinning idiot. If you got bad news, well, you try to contain that too. Some kids are better at it than others.

My guy was a Walk of Shame Olympian after he got cut. All he heard at the end was “come back next year.” An attitude like that and hard work will take you a long way in life.

Possibly useful real-life vignette #2

When Pad skated at the London Knights rookie camp in May 2010, they used the walk of shame for the exit interview process. There was little shame I guess, except if you didn’t get invited to the main camp, and who would know anyway? But it was instructive to me as to what a staple the “lineup outside the room with the coach” is in hockey. I wonder if that’s how Ken Hitchcock rolls?

8.       My kid is better than half the guys in AAA, so why is his playing AA?

First, no he isn’t. Second, it doesn’t matter even if he is. If you have a son playing AAA now in minor bantam or lower, that’s great. But it’s no better for him than AA. That’s not just my opinion – I’ve heard it from junior coaches, major junior scouts, even NHL scouts. I can now add NCAA and Canadian university coaches to that list too. They don’t care. Ice time for the kids is ice time. Period. Sure if some phenom is scoring 200 goals a season in AAA, they are going to pay attention. But for 99.9 per cent of the world who want to take a shot a serious competitive hockey – major junior, junior A, NCAA and CIS – that starts at major bantam and, more specifically, minor midget. If your kid is one of “those” guys, you will know soon enough and nothing you can do will make it happen. He will either have the tools and skills and scouts will find you, or he won’t and they won’t notice. Which leads to the next question . . .

9.       What’s the most important part of rep hockey?

Whether Timbits blue, or minor midget AAA, your son better be having fun. If it’s not fun, nothing good will come of it. There are lots of AA teams that will be a better fit – and more successful – than AAA teams. Ditto for single A vs AA. For better or worse in terms of development, my guy was always on a team that was a good fit. Maybe house league is the best fit. Chris was a career house leaguer and I would defy you to find anyone in MOHA who had more than than him, now or ever. As for rep,  were there crazy moments? Um, yeah. But overall, no complaints. The coaches, the parents, the other kids – all good. Pad had fun. He still does. Me too.

10.     Any carte blanche advice?

If your son wanted to go on a trip to Europe, would you hand him $3000, slap him on the back and tell him to call from the airport when he returns? No. Probably not. (Chris would like that idea, but it’s not going to happen.) I’m guessing you would start asking questions: who are you going with? When? Who is chaperoning? What will it cost? When are you back? Medical insurance? What are the risks? Where did you get that tattoo? What are the upsides? Rep sport is no different. Ask lots of questions: who might his coaches be if he makes a team? What is their reputation? Are they parent coaches who promote their own kids over other players? Are they parent coaches who are relentlessly fair? What was the experience of families on the team they had last year? Are the coaches’ expectations – time, team, financial — in line with yours and your bank account? Is it what your son wants, or is it what YOU want? Ask questions. Make phone calls. Talk to people. Good coaches don’t mind.

There are, no doubt, a million other questions. I would be happy to answer others if you want to email me or comment. I’m not an expert beyond what I have seen, heard and learned. Email me at garnold(at)gmail.com. I will reply.

I do not mean for all this to sound overly dour or cautionary, though it probably is. Rep hockey is big business and you need to step into it with your eyes wide open. It costs real money and lots of time. At the end of the day it is about building kids into citizens because chances are very high that major junior, junior A, NCAA or CIS are not in your son’s future, let alone the NHL.

On the other hand, as a scout once said to me: it only takes one person who decides he’s worth it. And then hold on for the ride. We’ve been lucky (or cursed, depending on the view.) The ride continues and we keep our hands safely inside the moving vehicle at all times.

The positive side of it is enormous. You will make amazing new family friends who you will have for a lifetime.

Possibly useful real- life vignette #3

When the Blades played the annual Pink in the Rink fundraiser back in January, the number of parents of former teammates, or former teammates themselves, of Pad’s who came to the game simply floored us. We barely got to watch the game because so many people came out, wanted to chat, and tell us how cool they thought it was that Pad was the EverReady bunny of MOHA AA hockey. He never gave up and just kept going and going. That gesture by literally dozens of people simply stunned us. Genuine friendships. That’s a pretty good outcome from minor hockey.

You will discover that people you thought were raving psychopaths are actually normal. You will gather enough wild hockey stories to fuel boozy dinner parties well into your dotage. You might learn to respect the volunteers who make it all happen. And you will miss it unbearably when it is over.

I cannot begin to tell you what a great adventure it has been for us. It has been no more or less typical or extraordinary than any other family – but it has been pretty amazing for us. I have made dozens and dozens of significant hockey contacts and I am now in position to use those contacts to help kids a year or two or three behind my guy find their way, too. And that feels good.

The stuff that happened through rep minor hockey was far more entertaining than almost anything since he moved into junior A. Except, perhaps, for the day he was traded (the first time), and there’s probably a book in there somewhere, the title of which might be based on his his mother’s quote:

He’s not going to play for f****** Orangeville!(and other stories from a life as a hockey dad”)

That’s a story for another day. But it’s a good one!

2014 addendum: Pad’s junior hockey career is over. He will be playing university hockey in the fall but I can’t say where yet until the paperwork is done. But if you are a parent and you are reading this, you need to know his biggest fan is his mother.

And candidly, if we had it all to do again, she would prefer he never played junior A hockey. There were rough experiences. There were trades. There were injuries. There were tears and fears and boneheads along the way. There were some breathtakingly stupid, hurtful people. I too have, at a low moment, uttered that I wish I never took him to a rink when he was three.

There have also been some real heroes and role models and rocks. The families who billeted him in BC and Ottawa — honestly they treated him so well it is hard for us to talk about without getting emotional. He was part of their family and they are part of ours now.

That is now all beside the point, but in fairness I wanted to say his mom would not recommend the experience unless your kid is the next Crosby, and if you want to talk privately about that, I will make time for it, too. Laura and I disagree on this point but, I love her because she’s smart and it’s worth you knowing what someone as smart as her thinks. It is a discussion point in our kitchen to this day.

In the end, Pad decided what was best for him and to end where I started, we will continue to always be there and support him.

As they say at the Indiana Jones movies, the adventure continues.