Kevin Reiter is new to his position, but he’s certainly not new to USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.
Reiter, the NTDP’s goaltending coach for the last four seasons, was promoted to director of player personnel this offseason, which means he is now in charge of all scouting and recruiting for the Plymouth, Michigan-based program.
That means that during the 2017-18 season, Reiter and his staff will be scouring youth hockey rinks across the country in search of the next group of NTDP players.
What is he looking for when he walks into a rink to check out a particular player? A lot, but not necessarily how many points said player is putting on the scoresheet. For Reiter, it all starts with hockey sense.
“People always say hockey sense, that’s kind of the top one,” Reiter said. “How do you define hockey IQ? For us, it’s kids that know the game. You can see them make plays or see them figure out how to make deception-like plays that other guys might not. It’s the kid who doesn’t ice the puck with the goalie out, it’s the centerman walking into the face-off dot looking around and making sure everybody’s in the right spot. Good stick, taking good angles on guys – things that might not always translate immediately to points, but over the long haul, it does. You can learn that from watching hockey, watch NHL players – watch these guys and study them.”
From there, Reiter is looking for players who are determined to win.
“Compete,” Reiter said. “We want guys who want to be hockey players. We really work here on making guys love to compete. We play a lot of small games, we do a lot of different things where we’re keeping score in drills. We want our guys to win. When we’re watching guys, we want guys who are relentless on pucks; guys who can protect the puck without having a coach yell at them to give a second effort and try to get the puck back.
“It’s not always a light switch you can turn on or off, but we try to make them love it and try to build habits that they have to bring every day in practice, so maybe they develop an understanding of how they’re competing and if they’re truly tenacious about it. For these guys, they’re going up against the best players every day, whereas, they came from a team where there may have only been a couple players where they really had to go hard against every practice. If you don’t compete here every day, and work to be a player, somebody’s going to make you look bad.”
The NTDP scouting staff is also searching for leaders.
“Character is huge for us,” Reiter said. “We want good hockey players, obviously, but we want good people. We’re always looking for different things, body language they might have on the bench or how they interact with the team, how they’re coming off and giving guys fist bumps and different things, just being that character and vocal leader.”
Reiter and the NTDP will go to great lengths to find out about a player’s character.
“We’re trying to vet, do our due diligence, obviously past coaches – we get a good take on it just from watching the guy’s body language. Are they a team player? If they miss a shootout attempt, do they come back to the bench and pout or do they get up and get ready for the next guy to shoot? We do a lot of digging. I like to talk to players that they’ve played with – former players on their teams – I think that’s really important. We’ll keep digging all the way down to other past coaches. I’ve called school counselors. I’ve called numerous other people and asked them if this kid wants to be a hockey player. Tell me about this kid.”
They face a unique challenge in evaluating players based off their potential, not their current status among their peers.
“I think some of the biggest things is just making sure our scouts are organized and detailed and let them know what we want to look for, what we think is going to make a player successful here,” Reiter said. “Always having the best player right now, I think the toughest thing with this position is projection. Projecting what this player’s going to be, somebody might be a little bit better right now, maybe a little more physically mature, but this person or that person might pass him up. That was the biggest learning curve for me. These guys do an unbelievable job out in the field.”
Still, they want to see a firm grasp on the most basic – yet most important – hockey skills.
“It’s something we really talk about with our scouts – don’t overlook certain skills,” Reiter said. “It’s amazing how many plays get killed because a player can’t actually make and catch a pass. Some basic skills can be overlooked. Can you make a good flat pass? Yeah, everybody likes throwing sauce on it, but we start a lot of our practices with what we call NHL passing, guys standing 12 to 15 feet apart, just passing hard.
“We take our guys to watch a Detroit Red Wings pregame pass just so they can see how much the guys talk and how hard they pass the puck in practice. They don’t just push it, they get it and they really snap it. The fundamentals and the foundation are the biggest points, biggest keys to being a successful player. If you don’t have the foundation and the structure, with how fast the game is now, you’re not going to be able to play at that high level you want to get to.”