The Hockey Tryout: Even The Best In The Game Still Have To Prove Their Worth (And advice for keeping your sanity through hockey’s trial period).
With the opening of the 2010-11 NHL season looming, fake-meaningless tease pre-season hockey is all us stick-and-puck fans have to tide us over until that first puck drops. We’ve endured baseball highlights on Sportscentre for long enough, it’s time to get some real sports going!
One interesting notable for me looking at the pre-season has been the boggling number of established NHL veterans still looking for a job – and their only option, seemingly, is to “tryout” for an NHL team. Good luck trying to get Stanley Cup champ and former NHL All-Star Bill Guerin to fill out and mail in his registration form and camp fee in a self-addressed, stamped return envelope, in exchange for a free camp jersey and four guaranteed ice-times.
I count upwards of 20 NHL vets now fighting for their right to stay active in the world’s best hockey league:
Anaheim — Joe DiPenta (1 Cup), Stephane Veilleux; Atlanta — Enver Lisin, Kyle McLaren; Boston — Brian McGrattan; Columbus — Dan Fritsche; Dallas — Jonathan Cheechoo (All-Star, Rocket Richard Trophy); Florida — Tyler Arnason; New Jersey — Marcus Nilsson; N.Y. Rangers — Garnet Exelby, Ruslan Fedotenko (2 Cups, Olympian), Alexei Semenov; Philadelphia — Bill Guerin (2 Cups, All-Star, Olympian); Phoenix — Shane Hnidy, Kyle Wellwood; San Jose — Andreas Lilja (1 Cup); Tampa — Eric Perrin (1 Cup); Vancouver — Brendan Morrison, Peter Schaefer; Washington — Matt Hendricks. ( from TSN.ca )
I just gotta wonder what the real likelihood of these guys making these teams really is (see: Theo Fleury, Flames tryout). I mean, it’s not like they’re new players that no one’s had a chance to see because they’ve been playing in an obscure minor league and there are only a handful of youtube videos on them. These guys have all been around the league, and coaches and scouts already know what they’re all about.
And in reality, that’s the shitty thing about trying out for ANY team at ANY level. In most cases, teams are already all but finalized before you show up at camp. Guys have been committed to in the off-season, or re-signed from last year. With only a few spots open from trades, injuries, or releases, if your resume isn’t already speaking for you, your only hope is to be so awesome that you out-perform a seasoned veteran, or that a vet gets hurt and you’ve looked good enough to be a lock for a call-up spot. And that’s just the honest truth.
Too many young, good hockey players have had their hockey dreams dashed at an early or mid-point level because a team apparently already committed a starting spot and full PP/PK time to a player; who then walks out of camp a week later headed back on the 12-hour long bus to the team he was playing for before because things “didn’t work out” the way he was told they were going to at their tryout. To be fair though, the onus is on the player to perform; if he can’t do that during that evaluation period, then the chances of that player being a team fixture do fade, no matter how highly touted or decorated they are. As a coach now myself, I’ve had to weigh-in on some tough (and not so tough) decisions about who will play for our team. While it’s easy to strike a guy off on paper, no one wants to be the guy who has to tell the player that he’s not we’re looking for. It’s easy to tell that a guy wants to make the team, but it’s unfortunate when that’s just not a realistic possibility. I’m sure many teams don’t mind collecting those “camp fees” to pad their team’s budget for the year though.
And that’s where hockey, more so at the minor-pro level, can really get quite exploitive. Hockey is a game that players are passionate about. I mean, blindingly passionate about. So much so that they’ll jump at any chance to play for any team, anywhere. From Northern Saskatchewan to Southern Alabama, if you’ve got a team and a training camp, chances are there are players willing to un-bank their life savings and drive to your hole-in-the-wall town from the exact opposite point on the continent for that one chance to be part of the team and to seek their fame and glory. And chances are also that that team is probably full, despite their advertising to “leave no stone unturned” in hopes of finding talent.
Free-agent camps are tricky too, because they’ll mention how many coaches, scouts, and GM’s will be watching you, and how many were signed out of last year’s camp; and when you show up, there’s only one scout (maybe just a guy wearing a team jacket) from a crappy team that only sticks around for 1 period (this happened to a player I know this past summer) and doesn’t give anyone a fair look.
The third axis is the agent. Many free agents will seek a player agent to represent them in pursuit of a contract. The first tip-off here is the player pursuing the agent, not the agent pursuing the player. If players are not careful, they can get mixed up with people/con-men who will take their money in exchange for promises of placement, and then never hear from the agent again, see their money again, or sign a contract (happened to me). There are lots of good, credible agents and agencies out there, but you really gotta be careful, that’s all. And again, it’s tough because players want to play so bad because of their love for the game and their emotional attachment to it; that pursuit and their trustworthiness is easily abused when it aligns with a person or team who doesn’t mind separating you from your money in exchange only for false hope and promises.
So, aspiring players who have not had the luxury of being drafted and/or a phenom from a young age, here’s your tryout camp mental checklist to review before filling out that form and sending in your cheque:
1) Are you good enough?
2) Ask yourself again, no really, are you good enough to make this team?
3) Are you willing to endure failure and rejection, and self-improvement for what might be years until you do make this or another team?
4) Can you fiscally, and mentally, afford it?
5) Are you willing to live and play in the middle of no-where for an extended period of time, for next to no money?
6) What is your goal is hockey? Will you settle for anything below the NHL in the end?
7) Do the rewards that come with being a hockey player outweigh the benefits to you?
8) If you’re not single, what does your significant other think of all this?
I’m sure I could think of more, but if you’ve answered yes to all the above questions, then you should pursue your hockey dreams, no matter what they are, and no matter what they call for. If you’re hesitant, then you may want to re-evaluate your path in the game. But when it comes to camp time, always do your homework on the team, and be realistic (even if your realism would be described as crazy by others). Other than that, let your heart and passion for the game, combined with your abilities and talents take you as far as they will lead; just don’t be afraid to follow them! Being able to play the game of hockey is a very temporary privilege that only a very small percentage of people will ever have the opportunity to do at any level, so don’t take your remaining time in the game for granted. If opportunity knocks, open the door; just make sure you let the right people in.