March 27, 2012

From NEHJ: Junior tryouts offer opportunities

By Bill Keefe

Throughout life, there is that next step up to a new level and the butterflies that come with the unknown. 

Tony DeSilva, GM and head coach of the Mass. Maple Leafs, tells prospective players to ‘do what you do best.’ (Photo courtesy of Mass. Maple Leafs)

Junior hockey is no different.

Similar to picking a high school, a college or accepting a new job, selecting a junior hockey organization and going through the tryout process requires preparation, research and self-assessment.

None of these choices is one size fits all.

As the calendar turns to March and April, it is high season for the selection process for the following season’s junior rosters. Every organization — no matter what level it plays at, no matter what league it plays in and no matter which gender it serves —  handles its tryouts differently, both conceptually and logistically.

Similarly, every junior organization operates its program differently. Accordingly, principals and observers across the junior hockey spectrum encourage players and their families to consider their long-term hockey goals and to investigate the myriad junior programs long before stepping on the ice for a tryout.

“A lot has to do with being realistic about your goals and what schools you can attend and what you can afford,” said Bob Rotondo, who has served in various capacities with boys’ prep and junior teams and leagues and is currently the owner and general manager of the Boston Junior Shamrocks girls’ junior program. “People realize they have to pay for schooling that they thought because they played hockey could come free.”

NCAA rules limit men’s Division 1 and women’s Division 1 and 2 programs to 18 scholarships. With more players than that on a roster, scholarships are often partial in nature. In addition, further restrictions apply; Atlantic Hockey limits its member schools to 12 scholarships while Ivy League schools do not provide any athletic scholarships.

Coming into tryouts, players also need to have perspective. While no one wants to limit anyone’s dreams, the reality is that the vast majority of junior hockey players are recruited. And of the players at tryouts, most have been invited.

“There is a sub-culture that exists in youth hockey and extends to junior hockey where parents are always looking for the grass to be greener and a chance to move up,” NHL agent Matt Keator (Wellesley, Mass.) said. “The grass isn’t always greener.”

In making a choice on a program, Keator lists two key components.

“One is playing time,” he said. “The other is visibility. Pick a junior program that will give you the type of support you need to develop.”

Rotondo said the Shamrocks’ recruiting areas for their top Under-19 team include California, Florida, Texas, Alaska, New York and Canada, in addition to New England. He said that somewhere between 20 and 30 players will try out on their own for a spot on the team that plays in the Junior Women’s Hockey League.

On April 7 and 9, prospective Shamrocks will participate in tryouts and scrimmages. Because of the out-of-state recruiting, tryouts tend to include more local players who are considering making a jump from high school or switching programs.

Rotondo advises players trying out to “just come in ready to play” but, more importantly, “have your transcripts. If you can play hockey and can’t get through the front door (of a college), it doesn’t work. School is more important than hockey. We can make them better hockey players; we can’t erase two to three years of lackluster schooling.”

No two junior programs are identical. The Shamrocks offer a group residence with a house mother while some programs place players with billet families or in apartments. The Shamrocks offer online college courses, an academic adviser and tutors daily; some programs’ travel may lead students to miss excessive school days while others may not require schooling.

For the hockey aspect, it comes down to coaching, player placement and understanding what a player’s potential role on a team will be and if that will help the player develop, Rotondo said.

Bob Thornton, general manager and head coach of the Junior A and B teams for the New Jersey Rockets, said his club also does extensive recruiting. He estimated that 35 percent of the 80-100 players at tryout camp will be “walk-ons.” The candidates for both teams are mixed together.

The Rockets tend to feature younger rosters with 16- to 18-year-olds largely filling the “A” team in the Atlantic Junior Hockey League and 15- to 17-year-olds on the “B” team in the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League. In addition, Thornton said, the Rockets strongly believe in promoting players from its “B” team to the “A” team; he expects about 10 players to make the jump next year. Many organizations do not see that level of movement between squads, which leads some to argue that non-“A” teams are seen as revenue generators.

In both cases, Thornton said, their motivation is development. Thornton works with the United States Hockey League and has sent some of his top players there, even midseason.

“I’m never going to hold anyone back,” Thornton said. “Why wouldn’t you provide them another level? I want to win as well, but I would rather give my best kids an opportunity to play on a bigger stage.”

In the same vein, Thornton wants to provide every candidate with the opportunity to make his teams. Tryouts run for three days (April 3-5) with multiple hours of ice each day. All players are kept for the full tryout to give them multiple chances to impress the coaching staff. Additionally, Thornton said, “we want to exhaust them and see if they’re ready to handle playing at this level.

“It’s up to the player to come in and perform and work hard and be in shape. We do a lot of off-ice training so we know who’s in shape and who’s not. It’s pretty obvious.

“I tell the kids to compete hard. You’ve got to go out there and battle. The kids that compete today are going to be the college hockey player.”

Echoing Rotondo, Thornton said the ultimate deciding factors in picking a junior team are learning what organization has the best reputation and where you are going to get the best coaching.

Like the Shamrocks and Rockets, the Mass. Maple Leafs of the Eastern States Hockey League also recruit players, said general manager and head coach Tony DeSilva. However, the Leafs don’t conduct tryouts. At least not how most people think of them.

Scouting takes DeSilva to Chicago, Denver and St. Louis showcases, where he offers contracts or invitations to play on a Maple Leafs summer tournament team.

“It’s easier, especially for an out-of-stater,” DeSilva said. “If they come to a tournament, they get junior and college exposure from other teams as well and get more bang for their buck.”

For local players, the Leafs run a 90-minute session once a week for five weeks (March 29-April 26). From there, players may be invited to a tournament.

“The advice I give to every single player is we want you to do what you do best,” DeSilva said. “If you’re a playmaker, a goal scorer, a grinder — do that. Not everybody is a scorer. Every team would love to have 20 100-point scorers. That’s not going to happen; you need role players, too.”

DeSilva said each player’s situation is different in deciding the best course of action. He does advise players to think about where they want to be not just for the coming season but also for the season after that.

“Players and parents have to do their homework as if they’re picking a college,” DeSilva said. “What are the practice times? Look at their advancement. Look at the schedule, price and location. … Talk to past and current players. With as many teams as there are, you need to do your homework.”

Around juniors

Harvard-bound Jimmy Vesey (North Reading, Mass.) certainly left an impression in his rookie — and only — season in the Eastern Junior Hockey League.

Vesey set the single-season scoring record of 84 points with an assist on a Joe Prescott (Norwell, Mass.) goal in a 6-3 win against the Bay State Breakers on Feb. 16.

But he wasn’t done there.

Vesey added another assist in that game and then posted 4-2-6 numbers over his last three games to finish the season with 91 points on 48 goals (also a single-season record) and 43 assists.

The record of 83 points had been jointly held by former New Hampshire Jr. Monarch Paul Thompson (Derry, N.H.), who did it in 2006-07, and former South Shore King Chris Wagner (Walpole, Mass.), who did it in 2009-10.

Vesey’s linemate, Dartmouth-committed Nick Bligh (Milton, Mass.), also broke the previous scoring record with 85 points on 22 goals and what has to be a single-season record 63 assists. …

The Kings won the Southern Division title with a 37-8 record and 74 points, a point off the regular-season best 75 posted by the 37-7-1 Northern Division champs, the Junior Bruins. The next-closest team overall was the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs at 61 points.

The Kings and Jersey Hitmen in the South and the Bruins and Monarchs in the North earned first-round-byes and were scheduled to host quarterfinal series March 3 and 4. The semifinals are March 10 and 11 with the final March 15-17 at New England Sports Center in Marlboro, Mass. …

Monarchs goalie Terry Shafer led the league in goals against at 2.32 and, with one regular season game to go, Junior Bruin Derek Metcalfe (Stoneham, Mass.) led in save percentage at .928, just ahead of the Valley Jr. Warriors’ Fabian Sivnert at .926. …

With two games to play in the regular season, the Walpole Express held a three-point lead over the Northern Cyclones (74-71) for the Atlantic Junior Hockey League title. The New York Bobcats were next at 61 points.

The Express have been backboned by Kyle Shapiro (1.49, .942) while the Cyclones’ Hugh Oftedal has done much the same (1.56, .946). …

The USA Hockey Tier 3 Junior “National Championships” commence this month, and that term is being used loosely. There are 11 Tier 3 leagues, but there is what is termed the American Division championship March 9-12 in Foxboro, Mass., and the National Division championship March 30-April 3 in Rochester, Minn. Neither the EJHL nor the AJHL, the two best Tier 3 leagues, are sending representatives to either “championship.”

The American “championship” will include clubs only from the Empire Junior Hockey League and the Eastern States Hockey League. The Eastern States teams serve as “C” teams within an organization to the Empire’s “B” teams, most of which feed to “A” teams in the EJHL. The National “championship” will be competed among the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League and up to the six other Tier 3 leagues based in the West and Midwest. …

The U.S. Under-17 team captured the Vlad Dzurilla tournament in Slovakia in impressive fashion, dispatching Germany, Switzerland and Slovakia by an aggregate 22-4. Curtis Frye (Northwood, N.H.) posted a 22-save shutout against Germany. Tyler Kelleher (Longmeadow, Mass.) had a multipoint game in each contest and finished with 3-4-7. John Hayden (Greenwich, Conn.) had two goals and two assists while defenseman Anthony Florentino (West Roxbury, Mass.) had two assists. …

The U.S. Under-18 had a third-place showing at the Five Nations Tournament in Finland with a 2-2 record, defeating the Czech Republic and Russia, but falling to Sweden and Finland. …

The Indiana Ice added NHL early-round draft prospect Cristoval “Boo” Nieves to its roster setting up the Michigan-bound forward to join the club when his Kent School season ends.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Bill Keefe can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com