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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).

September 30, 2010 8 comments

 

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!

Yeah hi Bill, so camp registration fee is $250, and make sure the form is signed by a parent of legal guardian and returned by Aug 1. Good luck!

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 )

Fist pumping because he thinks he nailed the audition, or slipping on a banana peel back to reality?

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.

Do yourself a favor and at least look the part. If you show up wearing one of these, kindly show yourself out the door.

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.

 

Long Live the Veteran / Death to Rookies. An Inside Look at Rookie Initiation in Hockey.

November 17, 2009 Leave a comment

Full gear renditions of "I'm a Little Teapot" in front of the entire school never get less funny.

Veterans (not of the we-fought-for your-freedom-and paid-with-our-lives persuasion, rather of the we’ve-played-here-longer-than-you-now-do-all-the-work-and-entertain-us variety). They’re simultaneously the nightmare and aspiring dream of every rookie on every hockey team that does, did, or will, exist.  Upon deservingly advancing through weeks of rookie camps and finally making the team they were trying out for, the pride in the rookie’s head takes at least a small swerve to fear-town when he is introduced to the 20+ hockey bags he and the other rockpiles will be loading onto and off of the bus all year, as well as the front seat of the bus nearest the bus driver that he will be sharing with another rookie for the entire 8 hour road trip, as well as every other subsequent “roadie” (roadtrip).

Rookies take a lot of punishment. The menial tasks like picking up pucks, lugging gear, filling bottles and so on, are all standard. Other more obscure burdens include dressing up, unhealthy amounts of booze, questionable sexual activity, articles of food put in places they don’t belong, photographs, races, and a lot of other ridiculous activities that lean more towards that dirty word, “Hazing.” It seems like the younger the guys and lower the level, the more borderline the things rookies have to do. Because of some idiot vets that took the ritual’s concept too far and chose to actually hurt and embarrass some rookies (whom, afterwards, decided to speak out against the practice), rookie initiation has been banned all together on some teams and in some circles.  I do hope some of the stories are myths; sadly I’m sure they’re not. Being taped up and put in the shower is par for the course. Stuffing as many rookies in a bus bathroom as possible (usually more), and vets generating various requirements for their release is entertaining, if you’re a vet. 10 guys trying to successfully collect and correctly add an unknown amount of pocket change scattered on the floor is difficult at best in a 2’x2’x8’ room which houses human waste. Hockey players also do not begin to smell better as time goes on in closed quarters.

One of the lighter, and more fun veteran policies in college circles require rookies to dress up in full gear (minus the stick and skates) for a day at school; an event known as “The Rookie Olympics.” Let me tell you from experience, taking lecture notes with hockey gloves on is easier said than done. Also, NO girls appreciate the smell you radiate, so you had best avoid any you are hoping to impress. At the veteran’s discretion, penalties can, and will, be called throughout the day for any equipment infractions. If any gear is removed, chinstrap undone, helmet and visor not properly affixed, or a veteran command is disregarded, minor or major penalties may be assessed. Penalties add up, and then will be paid for later at practice. Lunchtime activities in the cafeteria may include races while attempting to not spill trays holding 20 tall plastic cups of water, or the fetching of meals for veterans, or for anyone a veteran chooses (generally the more embarrassing the better). Situations like this one are usually even supported by teachers, and you may see a professor or two get in on the action. Every team’s got their own stories, so just ask a hockey player you know to tell their tales of rookie-dom.

There are disputes on when veteran status can be claimed.  Some claim the second the last game of the year ends, you’re free.  Some claim upon return after the Christmas break.  My personal opinion is that you forfeit your rookie status the moment you show up for camp the next year.  I feel that you must re-enter and resume the cycle of the season before you can be deemed a veteran. It’s a testament to those who weathered the storm, and still come back for more. Of course, the second time around they get to be the giver, and revel in glory all year long.

There is also contention on who can be declared a rookie.  General school of thought is that if it is your first year on the team, and/or your first year in the league you are currently playing, you are a rookie. But there are loopholes. For example, if you’re playing on a college team, and you happen to have a player who used to play pro, and is technically coming DOWN to your team, then this player is generally exempt.  On a technicality, he is a rookie, but good luck to anyone brave enough to attempt enforcement. Many professional leagues require you to play a minimum amount of games in the league before you can make more than the rookie salary cap. In this case, it may take several tours of duty to shake to rook off; players not able to stick on higher teams might be in it for the long haul.

Unfortunately, sometimes the message that gets sent to rookies through their initiation is that they are neither liked, nor wanted, on the team. Though sometimes this is actually true, most of the time it’s not. As a general rule of male bonding in a team environment, guys feel the need to humiliate or verbally abuse the guys they like. So, in theory, the worse you get it, more accepted you are. It sounds bizarre, but trust me. Unless of course, you’re just a real douche. The obvious fact is that the new players are talented enough to make the team, likely younger, perhaps faster, and are all necessary for the long-term success of the squad. But because they’re green, they’re rough around the edges, and they require development in the on-ice environment they are going to be physically punished in throughout the season. They are going to get chirped, beaked, mauled,and rail-roaded by opposing teams. This is where there off-ice development comes into play. The methods used in this form of team bonding are a little askew, but If a veteran can loosen up a rookie to the point where he can get comfortable (whilst dancing a fine line and not get cocky), within his circle of teammates, then he will inherently become a better player on the ice, and become more effective for the greater good of the team. Everybody needs everyone out there. Players play better when they feel at ease. When an opponent has you in the mind, you might as well not even dress. But if you’ve handled the in-good-fun abuse from your own team, built up some callous against verbal assault, and have learned that these same guys are going to stick up for you in battle when the other team wants to take you down a few pegs, you’re going to be a leg up.

In the end, rookie or vet, you’re all on the same team, and all working towards the same goal, so you better be on the same page. Men remember experiences most vividly. In an odd way, rookie initiation bonds teams closer together, because they do it to each other and no one outside the team, and every player has to do it. Thusly, a subtle line of separation from everyone else gets drawn, binding the participants tighter. If rookies do their best to take it in stride, and veterans do their best not to take it too far, Rookie Initiation can be one of the best stories a player gets to remember, and one of the most enjoyable practices they get to dish out when they finally reach veteran status.

Discussion/comment provoking question: If you are or were a hockey player (or athlete of any sport), what is your best or worst rookie initiation story?

 

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