A Letter To Younger Hockey Players

As the hockey season begins to wind down and come to an end. A lot of players are getting ready to enter the off-season. What that may include is different for each athlete, whether it be another sport in the spring/summer dedicating the off-season to coming back ready for next season. Either way, a message I wish someone told me when I was a junior/senior in High School was “for some players the process is slower than other so, don’t rush it and have fun".

In a world of players “committing” to colleges at 15,16,17 years old, getting chosen for the USHL, NAHL, playing AAA hockey. Young players compare themselves to those around them and tend to either get discouraged, leading to second thoughts on their playing career and ability and or it motivates them. More often than not we see a lot of players on the wrong side of the spectrum, leading to quitting, settling for mediocre, a less enthused attitude around hockey and those looking forward to their playing career ending.

I wish a coach, a parent, a former player, whomever it may be told me to “not rush the process and progression is slow for some, just be patient”.

I say that as I watch a lot of senior hockey players deciding what their next step is. Let me give you some insight on what I wish I knew when I was graduating high school. Most players have a few options, (a) either quit hockey and go to college, (b) pay for juniors, (c) try out for a NAHL/NA3HL team, (d) tryout for a NCDC team or (e) play ACHA club hockey.

Sometimes the expense of juniors is what deters a lot of hockey players to continue playing after high school, a lot of junior clubs cost anywhere from $5,000-10,000 a year to play. While that may be a semester of tuition, if you do that for two-three years and go to college without a full or half ride then it is a lot of money for one to afford. Some NAHL/NA3HL teams hold open camps but a lot of players think "they already have their team picked" so they do not go. Typically most NAHL teams do scouting during the season and invite a few players to their pre-draft camps and then everyone else is allowed to try out as they please. Most NAHL/NA3HL teams choose about ⅔ or less of their team from these pre-draft camps. Sometimes the teams know a handful of guys that are coming in and have a good idea what they like about the player but want to see them actually play in person. Sometimes a player goes in and makes the team without being invited or prior scouting. Then you have the USPHL that has been watered down greatly over the year as there are a million USPHL teams out there guaranteeing you all the same thing, “development, exposure, chance to play at a high level”. Depending on the organization most USPHL teams do not do a great job finding homes for their players after they age out and or want to move on elsewhere, not to mention the cost that comes with USPHL. The USPHL has done a good job making a very competitive NCDC league but after that it is very far and few of competitive teams that help players move onto the next level.

What I did not know until my sophomore year of college, going into my junior year (20 years old at the time), although I did not see much development from junior to senior year of high school, the development I saw from freshman to end of sophomore year of college was astronomical. I can confidently say if I played two years of junior hockey somewhere after high school my hockey career would have a little different story to it. After my freshman year of college, my roommate and I tried out for the NAHL New Jersey Titans (pre-draft camp) at the time they did not have a second invitation only camp (this was in 2015, so six years later things have changed the NAHL has grown a lot!). At the camp they had a few players they had already selected for the team and maybe 4-5 open spots to fill. I ended up getting a call back to play in the All-star game they had and a meeting with the coach, in which he told me he loved me but I was not ready for the level yet “he could send me to his affiliate team in Canada or find me a home". Which rewind six years I would have done it in a heartbeat but my commitment to the college team I chose and mother being persistent I finished college, I ended up not doing it. Why I tell you this is because well, junior and senior year I had no teams interested in me at all, not a single one. My only chance to play was ACHA D1/D2 hockey or pay for juniors. Looking back now, I understand why. The speed of the game is different at higher levels, while physically I could skate, shoot and move just as well as most NAHL guys, the process at which I read the game was slower than top NAHL guys. All I needed was 1-2 years of higher level hockey and some exposure to top talent and teams.

Which a lot of kids don't understand the speed may be a little faster than what you are playing right now at High School or Triple A or double A hockey but the big difference is how quickly one reads the game, processes the game, makes decisions and is able to anticipate and play a step ahead of the game is what separates the top from the bottom or forces a lot of kids to give up on hockey at age 17/18 years old and just go to college. There is nothing wrong with playing club hockey either, some just do not want to endure the junior hockey lifestyle and just graduate college at 21 years old and call it a day. Which is fine, club hockey is awesome and there are a lot of ACHA D1/D2 teams that are very good, borderline NCAA D3 program caliber. I mean Liberty University beat NCAA D1 Long Island University earlier this year.

With that said, I just hate seeing kids think as if they are not good enough, hockey is not for them, there is no need to pursue hockey anymore, what is the point, etc. Which if you are not good enough I get it, but if you are a good hockey player and are struggling to “find your way”, the process is slower for some so just be patient and just buy in and have fun.

At points you will have highs and lows, you will feel as if you are good enough to play at any level and at times you will feel as if nothing is going right and you are wasting your time with hockey. Understood, but everyone goes through those spells. Most times you need a good coach by your side, a good support system and people who believe in you just to keep going.

All in all, I say this because at age 24, turning 25, the last three years of my hockey career have been spent coaching. Without any real structure in my own game, besides going out to open hockey, running practices, running skills development sessions, watching endless amounts of hockey, playing in competitive adult tournaments I have felt more comfortable in my game and ability than ever before. Which is why I wrote this article, because at 20-21 years old I was just nearing the tip of my development, I had the best career in my life my senior year of college. I wondered, wow if I played juniors until 21 who knows what would have happened with me. I say this and write this because I left a lot on the table with my playing career, which has made me so motivated to make sure the kids I coach do not make the same mistake I do. At the end of the day, school will always be there, money will always be there, you career will always be there (not to mention you are 18 entering college, you have no idea what you want to do really), all that you want to do will always be there but hockey will not last forever and neither will your playing career. So, to end with what I started, development is a slow process for some, be patient, buy in and have fun.

Anything any hockey player ever needs, never hesitate to reach out. My email is leadbyexampletraining1@gmail.com and my Instagram is leadbyexampletraining_ (underscore).

Best of luck, never give up on your dreams.

JJ Santagata

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