Junior hockey is a popular stop for many players en route to the college or professional ranks.
Whether a player is hoping to join the Tier I United States Hockey League, the Tier II North American Hockey League or the Tier III North American 3 Hockey League — the tryout process can be daunting.
Before even setting foot at camps and tryouts, hockey players may have already crossed paths with their future team.
“You’re always trying out,” said Chris Lonke, assistant general manager with the Minot Minotauros of the NAHL. “There are a lot of eyes at the rink at all times and you never know when you’re going to be seen.”
For players preparing to take the leap toward junior hockey, it’s best to start the process early.
“The year before you actually want to play junior hockey, I think, is a very important year to start relationships and identify teams you might want to play with,” Lonke said.
While each junior league’s tryout process may differ, many junior leagues have a pre-draft camp to evaluate future skaters. Drafted players, as well as invited free agents, attend training camp in the summer to determine the junior team’s final roster.
“Every junior hockey team is going to have tryouts to try and identify potential prospects for their team,” USHL Deputy Commissioner Denny Scanlon said. “They're going to go out there and they're going to look at a wide perspective, cast a wide net, and get a variety of players from different backgrounds to evaluate them and try and build their teams.”
STICK TO YOUR STRENGTHS
In today’s junior hockey landscape, competing for a roster spot can be a grind.
“I think the key thing for a player when they're going into a tryout camp — it’s probably the same advice they’ve heard over and over — is just to go in there and be themselves,” Scanlon said.
While it can be tempting to focus on putting the puck in the net, teams are also looking beyond the score sheet.
“If a player is a stay-at-home defenseman or a two-way centerman — they should be themselves,” Scanlon said. “Teams have different types of roles they’re looking to fill, so it doesn’t mean you have to go into a tryout camp and try to score five goals over the weekend. It's important for players to be who they are and play to their strengths and not try to be something they're not.”
Additionally, Lonke will often speak with a player’s high school coach to gain insight into that player’s off-ice characteristics, which are just as important.
“That’s who I go to first,” Lonke said. “I use a high school coach as a main resource to get to know a player. It’s very competitive out there for the players, so there’s a lot of homework done away from the ice — just asking work ethic and character questions.”
Coach recommendations aren’t an essential component to a tryout, but they can certainly help set a player apart from the competition.
“I think it can be helpful if you have a youth coach that can advocate for you and really believes in you to help get you in the right situation with the right camp,” Scanlon said. “I think that can be very helpful, but's it's not necessary. You can still go there and earn a spot, earn an opportunity on your own.”
Determining the right opportunity can be intimidating.
While coaches are an excellent resource to provide guidance, Lonke advises players to build relationships with multiple teams and leagues as they navigate their opportunities.
“Players should always have more than one option and more than one relationship,” Lonke said. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
DIVE INTO RESOURCES
Prior to attending tryouts, players are encouraged to start doing their homework.
“I would recommend going to the league’s website and I would definitely call organizations that they’re interested in,” Lonke said. “Look at current rosters to know the age of their teams if they’re trying to make the team the very next year, so they have an idea what they might be losing off the roster.”
Players and families can also familiarize themselves with the tryout process by visiting USAHockey.com/juniorhockey, which contains a directory of leagues and teams.
Most junior leagues will also have dedicated pages -- USHL's Team Tryouts page and USHL Combine page; the NAHL's Tryouts page as well as the NA3HL's Tryouts page -- that detail camp dates, the application process and how a player advances from a tryout camp to earning a roster spot.