This post is written by the infamous Mr. P.
100 or more young men from ages 15 to 20 show up for showcase tournaments heavily scouted by the many Junior coaches across North America almost every weekend in the off season. The kids are playing to impress with the goal of landing positions at the Junior level (under-20) and the competition is fierce. Frankly, each kid always looks amazing at these tournaments, and coaches spend countless hours recruiting them based on their performances. Finally, teams are selected and the preseason practices begin. They are always filled with hope and promise and for the kids - it's an opportunity to springboard to potential pro, college, or advancement into higher tier Junior hockey.
But the reality is that most of the kids do not reach their goals and achieve that certain “stardom” forecasted for them in their younger years. The reasons are many and I’ll share some of them with you.
The highest levels of this sport require extraordinary speed, skilled hands, “fast feet”, a high degree of toughness, top notch conditioning, quick decision making, and a level of commitment only seen by elite athletes. Plus, there is the “chemistry” that one brings to the locker room that plays another big role in determining success or failure.
All of the kids at this level are fast, have “good hands”, and a decent shot. But only a few have the type of speed that separates them from the pack. This is the breakaway elite speed that maybe one (or two if you’re lucky) possess on any given team. This is a must for playing at the next level. But even with that type of speed, you must also have the type of footwork required to let you shift from one direction laterally to another or transition from forward to backward skating and vice versa at the drop of a dime. I played with a guy who had NHL speed, size, and shot right out of college but had limited lateral cutting ability and was basically just a “vertical” player, one who went straight “up and down” the ice. He never left the lowest rungs of minor league hockey as a result. We all thought he was the next Alex Ovechkin!
Toughness is not measured by how good a fighter you are but instead by how willing you are to take a hit to make a play or continue to battle for pucks when you’re exhausted, losing in a game, etc. These are guys that coaches dream about…today, they are the Ryan Callahans and Patrice Bergerons of the NHL. The motors on these types of players never quit, they refuse to lose on each and every shift, and somehow, they find the inner toughness to notch it up a step when most needed. They are a royal pain in the butt to play against, but you’d love to have them on your team!! It is a MUST to have in order to succeed at elite hockey levels.
The ability to see a play before it actually happens is what separates the good from the great. Think of Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby when describing this attribute. Gretzky used to claim he looked 2 seconds into the future when on the ice and he always managed to create scoring plays when others were just skating around. Both Gretzky and Crosby manage to place a puck into spaces that haven’t even opened and then somehow their teammates have it on their blade with a chance to score. At the Junior level, most guys just play in the moment, reacting to what is happening to them at that time. The best ones that move up have that innate sense of determining what WILL happen if they just did “X”. They are special and easy to pick out for a sophisticated follower.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to most in reaching up to the next level is the dedication, commitment, and sacrifices needed to get there and remain there. For some, the game comes easily and they rely on their natural talents to get noticed. But the reality is that everyone is talented in Juniors and above. So the commitment needed to reach the top in terms of year round conditioning, diet, playing with pain, and just saying “no” to the many temptations offered a teenage hockey star truly skims the less committed. It is very difficult to maintain the discipline required to push yourself to heights beyond your current status and reach your dreams. And even then, there is no guarantee you’ll make it. The landscape is filled with many beer league young adults who did have the ability and talents to reach the pros or top colleges but failed to push themselves enough to achieve that lofty status.
And lastly, while you might be the world’s greatest player, you might also be the world’s greatest jerk! You know the type…he walks on water, is a selfish teammate, won’t cover his teammate’s backs when in trouble, does not try to fit in with the bonding and chemistry most successful teams have in the their locker rooms. These are the guys, if skilled enough, prove intoxicating to GMs and coaches. They feel THEY are the ones who can turn this kid around, but that rarely, if ever, happens. These kids bounce from team to team and ultimately never fulfill their vast amount of promise and hype. There are far more of this type of player than you are aware of. Luckily, ice hockey does have a way of reeling in these guys from within. Egos are not tolerated if the leadership is strong on and off the ice. And maybe this is why the sport is so special...