The dream of playing college and professional hockey grows in most players’ hearts with each passing season. Those aspirations sometimes make it difficult for developing players to hang up their skates in the offseason, for fear they’re missing opportunities to improve and take another step toward their dreams.
But while it might be hard for them to take a break from hockey, that’s precisely what they should do, despite plenty of persuasive attempts to convince kids, parents and coaches otherwise.
Showcase Exposure Not Always Meaningful
The dream of a scholarship or a college hockey roster spot often draws players to summer or spring showcases that pit them against other youth hockey players. The promise of exposure to collegiate coaches and other scouts may very well be a reality, but it isn’t necessarily a guarantee that attending the showcase is the right choice.
According to Bob Daniels, who recently completed his 22nd year as head coach at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., these showcases are rarely as influential as players and parents think they are. Daniels said he and his staff refrain from making serious decisions on recruiting based on performances at showcases.
"What happens a lot is there is someone behind the event trying to convince young players and their families that their showcase is the place to be,” Daniels said. “Maybe they know a few college or major junior coaches are going to be there, and they use that to get other people there. They’re trying to make a profit off the event. This isn't always the case, but it is sometimes."
It’s the Season That Counts
In general, Daniels believes young players can attract the eyes of the right people by playing well on their regular teams, whether it’s a school, town or junior league. Summer hockey, while fun for a lot of kids, comes with characteristics that lead Daniels and other coaches at prominent college programs to disregard much of what happens at showcases.
"We're very cautious about making assumptions on players' talents at these camps,” Daniels said. “A lot of times, some of these young people haven't been playing for a few weeks or they've been playing non-stop and they look tired. We try not to make our decisions based upon the way players perform at these showcases. We want to see players during their seasons to make our decisions on the players we want to play for Ferris State."
Take a Break
Aside from issues with showcases in general, Daniels and a growing number of hockey and conditioning coaches believe too many young people focus too much on playing hockey throughout the year.
As much fun as it is for young people to keep playing hockey year-round, taking a few months to play other sports can be beneficial. Using the offseason to play lacrosse, baseball, soccer or another sport or activity helps players develop a varied skill set and greater overall athleticism. It also gives players a mental break from hockey, which keeps them mentally fresher during the regular season.
Playing year-round hockey, even for the most serious or talented young hockey player, puts them at risk of burning out or sustaining overuse injuries.
"We actively encourage our players to stay away from the ice for a while after our season ends,” Daniels says. “When you spend so much time on the ice, you risk overuse with things like groin pulls or abdominal strains. For players around 13 or 14, many of whom haven't really started growing yet, the chance for muscle overdevelopment or injury exists as well."
Even Daniels himself, a man who has made a successful career out of the sports, enjoys spending time away from the hockey rink.
The coaching staff at Ferris State encourages its players to spend their offseason getting physically stronger while maintaining their physical conditioning.
"We want our guys to spend the couple months after the season in the gym, getting physically stronger or even out on the golf course,” Daniels says.
As players turn 13, 14 or 15 years old, the desire to keep playing hockey beyond high school or other leagues only grows. Their training period should be extended as well if they are serious about a future in hockey.
However, some of the options available to draw the eyes of collegiate coaches may not be as promising as they seem.
“We don’t make assumptions on players during these showcases,” Daniels says. “If a player performs well during their regular season, they’ll be seen by the right people.”