Monday, October 14, 2013

Chapter 37: On To Junior Hockey

So that was that.  Many dollars spent.  Many miles travelled.  Memories to last a lifetime.  I would owe SallieMae $1027 per month for as far as the eye could see.  But I was happy.  Happy that I gave my son this gift.  Happy that I was able to give him the opportunity to do something I would have loved to have done when I was playing at his age.  He got great exposure, met amazing friends and formed bonds that would last a lifetime.  Coming from San Diego, he made a mark in one of the America's most competitive hockey hotbeds.

After all is said and done (I refuse to use the most overused phrase in the history of the world-"At the end of the day") would I do it again?  Depends.  Given the hit I took with the economic decline and my health I could never afford to do what we did.  If I had to choose today, in my current situation, I would probably elect to get my son into the best junior hockey league I could as early as he could physically handle it.  Much more affordable than prep school or Tier 1 travel hockey in Southern California.  If money was no issue, I would definately do it again.  Too many benefits to deny.  I can't speak to playing public high school hockey.  I do know that more than a few times at showcases over the years in the New England area I would always ask parents I was standing near while watching which was their son and where does he play.  Too many times, they would put their head down and with shame and humility tell me in a hushed tone, "he only plays high school hockey".  In my day that was nearly all we had.  Today it's a scarlet letter.  Too bad.

The quest continued.  As his senior prep school hockey season was ending the push was on to get picked up by a good junior team in a competitive league.  This was a challenging task to say the least.  It would start immediately after Tilton's season ended and would last until the very end of August.

First up was the America's Showcase, the premier event for high school hockey players in the U.S.(other than perhaps the Minnesota State high school hockey tournament) This event had been held, forever, in Chicago and was known as the Chicago Showcase.  For the first time it was being held elsewhere and the name was changed.  It was to take place in Pittsburgh at Robert Morris University and would henceforth be called "America's Showcase.'  To qualify to play in this event you needed to tryout for the team in the region where you attend high school, not where you were from.  In Max's case, that would be Team New England.  The tryouts were held just before I headed back to California at the end of my last trip, when I was recuperating from my neck surgery.

The coach for Team Northern New England was Sean Tremblay.  Sean was the coach of one of the top Eastern Junior Hockey League team at the time, the New Hampshire Monarchs.  This was the same organization for the midget AAA Monarchs Max had skated for the past two season before the prep season got under way.  

Looking forward to junior teams and leagues, the Monarchs and the EJHL were one of the programs at the top of our list.  Remember, the goal was being recruited by and committing to an NCAA Div 1 school.  Another major part of this goal would be not only to commit to and play for a D1 team, but to also play, to get ice time, to be an impact player.  I know way too many kids who stretched to get themselves on a top team only to sit the bench, to be a healthy scratch and to watch as the program brings in new fresh recruits each year while they ended up seeing more and more bench time. 

So when Max was selected by Sean Tremblay this was tremendous.  Just as important as being able to play and be scouted in the showcase was being selected by one of the top junior coaches in New England to play for his team.  Max earned his spot on the top line and skated with D1 recruit and current Merrimack standout, Connor Toomey.  Connor had played prep hockey at Proctor.  They had played against each other a number of times over the previous two seasons.  Connor was a standout in New Hampshire hockey and everyone knew who he was.  I was thrilled that Max would be skating with him on the same line.

The showcase took place in April.  I flew out to watch.  As I was arriving at the hotel, I had an idea.  As things were going, I would be a dad watching my kid play.  Ok, that would be fun.  But, I called my friend Bruce Miller, the owner of the San Diego Gulls of the Western States Hockey League and asked if he would like for me to scout for the Gulls as long as I was in Pittsburgh at the showcase.  He was more than happy.

So I went to the scouts table and signed in.  Instead of just watching my son's games, I got to watch all the games with the other scouts.  Free food, VIP pass, learning a ton about the scouting and recruiting game.  It was much more fun and interesting than just catching my kid's games.

I had a thick book with all the rosters of each team.  I studied the players, their ambitions, their academic records and their stats from the previous season.  Most players had somewhere between .5 points per game and maybe 2 points per game on average.  Max for example had around 33 points in 30 games…he missed 5 games due to his concussion.  Connor Toomey scored 56 points and Kevin Hayes, in his senior year at Boston University and drafted 24th overall by the Chicago Blackhawks notched 64.  The top scorer in all of New England Prep hockey was a kid named Garrett Sider who had 71 points, slightly over 3 points per game.  Garrett played at St. George in Middletown/Newport Rhode Island, a division 2 program that was not as competitive as some of the aforementioned schools.  He ended up at Tufts, a NESCAC D3 program where he hasn't particularly lit things up.

The reason I mention these stats is that there was a team, Team Illinois that had kids with nearly 200 hundred points in not that many more games.  I couldn't figure out how they could have been such prolific producers. In fact, I was skeptical and doubted these numbers.  At one point, I was chatting with their coach, a tall good looking guy who seemed to know what he was doing.  I asked him how legitimate these stats were because they were so much higher than any other team in the tournament.  He wasn't really sure.  He said the competition was sketchy and inconsistent and that the better teams tended to run up some pretty high scores against the weaker teams.

That made sense.  I could get that.  It wasn't particularly helpful or impressive. But at least it could account for the skewed numbers.  I'm not sure how it came up, but somehow this coach and I got around to talking about San Diego and he mentioned Chris Chelios.  Chris grew up playing hockey in his youth at our local rink in Mira Mesa.  This coach said he was good friends with Chris and had played with him.  Turns out he was Brian Noonan.  Brian had a long NHL career and played with Chris for the Blackhawks.  Brian is product of the Boston area.  I met his brother too.  I think he still coaches high school hockey in the area.

We (Team New England) beat Team Illinois in a game that was close, but they were no where near as good as their stats would have indicated.

One of my best friends in San Diego is Jaye Park.  I've mentioned him before in this blog.  Jaye is the guy who shared shifts with Chelios during the Thursday night pick group at the rink in Mira Mesa 40 years ago when they were young punks.  Jaye's son Greg and my son played Peewees together on their "miracle" team that upset the California hockey world and won the State title.  

Max and Greg attended many summer showcase events together.  They skated together in our adult pickup and senior league teams.  They played roller hockey together.  We spent a lot of time with the Parks who were also fairly close neighbors.  Gregory started playing junior hockey fairly early.  He joined the predecessor to the Gulls, the San Diego Surf when he was 16.  Jaye and MF Schurman, the owner/coach of the Surf were pretty close.  After a couple of seasons, MF sold the team to Bruce Miller and moved to Delaware where he now coaches the University of Maryland ACHA D1 club team.  He started coaching with the Little Flyers of the Atlantic Junior Hockey League.  MF was a recent ACHA coach of the year and won a natty championship a couple of years ago.

Jaye had a connection in the Ontario Junior Hockey League and the Huntsville Otters.  Greg packed up and went to Northern Ontario and played for a coach who had a sketchy history as a heavy drinker during his pro hockey days.  I heard tell of some criminal behavior, but apparently he'd paid his debt and was now coaching kids.  Nice. He was an old school hard ass.  He favored the veterans and gave Greg and the rookies a hard time.  Greg did well and always produced, but he didn't play a lot. Frustrated, Jaye and Greg ended up deciding Greg would leave late in the season and join MF with the Little Flyers in Philly.

Greg racked up some points and finished the season with the Little Flyers strongly.  He tried out for nearly every USHL and NAHL camp he could get to that summer but didn't get picked up, so he went back to play for MF's team the next fall.  He was the leading scorer for the Little Flyers but they were dwelling near the cellar and again, Jaye and Greg decided to make a move.  They asked to be traded to the Northern Cyclones in Hudson, NH.  The Cyclones were a powerhouse in this league and were in first place in the northern division.  

Greg got traded and proceeded to pretty much watch most of the games.  He hardly dressed and when he did he didn't get much of ice time.  The coach said things were working, the team was in first place and there was no sense in changing things up at this point.  He told Greg he knew who he was and what he could do but he would have to prove himself.  

Greg never got the opportunity.  As the season's end approached he again got traded.  This time to one of the bottom place teams in the northern division, the Portland Pirates.  He played.  But before the very end of the season the coach left or was fired and the new coach, not knowing the team, played everyone equally and Greg again found himself sitting out games.  His junior career came to an unspectacular conclusion.  He had one more year of eligibility but he'd decided enough was enough and it was time to get on with school.  Greg is very strong academically and had already turned down a scholarship to Villanova to chase his hockey dream.  

He finally decided on attending Northern Arizona University(NAU) in Flagstaff.  NAU has a competitive D2 ACHA Club team.  Greg is now in his senior year and has been a consistent top producer for the Lumberjacks.  

There was a reason I shared Greg's experience.  The coach of the Cyclones, Bill Flanagan, was one of the many scouts attending the America's Showcase in Pittsburgh.  I was scouting, he was scouting, I introduced myself to him and told him I was from San Diego and I knew Greg Park.  He was friendly enough.  He told me Greg was a good kid, but what I'd said before, things were working and there was no sense in changing the team around at that point.

That was the end of the discussion.  Bill would later become pivotal to my son's development.  I just mention this here as a notation.  I will pick this up again shortly.

I continued to scout the players, watch my son's games, hang out with the other scouts who represented both junior teams and colleges and enjoy the perks of being treated as somewhat of a VIP.  It was a great learning experience and one I would repeat a handful of times over the next few seasons. Scouting is fun.  As long as you don't have to do it for a living.  These coaches come to dread it after a while.  There's a ton of travel and it can become quite tedious.  Not for me though.  I dug it.
The only picture I took in Pittsburgh
The Penguins Last Season in the Igloo
Lost to Montreal in the playoffs

Team New England did well in the tournament.  They went undefeated in the round robin, but lost in the finals.  I forget who they lost to.  Most likely, Massachusetts, New Jersey or New York.  Maybe I'll dig in and do a little research to find out.  Here are a few highlight clips of my kid and Connor Toomey  putting a couple in the net.  Here are a few others here and here and here.

This would be the second time I ran into Mark Ostapino, the head coach from the Milwaukee School of Engineering.  I'd met him previously when he was a speaker at my level 4 coaching seminar in Reno, Nevada a couple of years earlier.  It would not be the last.  And it would not be the last time I got the chance to hear him speak about one of his favorite topics, himself.  I don't mean to be judgmental, but it got to be funny hearing the same stories at every event.  I probably ran into him nearly a dozen times over these few years.  

The America's Showcase ended.   The first and loudest and most persistent call Max got came from Bill Flanagan from the Cyclones.  He seemed to really like Max and was fairly aggressively recruiting him.  We had bigger plans in store.  The Monarchs EJHL tryouts were coming up.  Sean Tremblay had already selected Max for Team New England.  He played quite well in the showcase.  It seems he had a pretty good shot at making the team.

The tryouts came.  I was back in San Diego.  I got reports from Max and from a couple of parents I knew.  Max looked good.  They got to the final day, had selected an "all star" team out of the tryouts.  Max made that, but did not make the team.  The first of a number of few disappointments that he/we would experience over the upcoming all important summer tryout season.  The reports I got from Max and the other parents was that the team was pretty much picked going into the tryout and they were really only needing to fill a few spots with big physical grinders.  Max is not a grinder.  He grinds, mind you, it's just not the first thing that you want him for.  

Apparently the calls kept coming from Flanagan of the Cyclones in the AJHL.  The AJHL was not the best league for a player wanting to go D1.  I was against Max committing to them.  I wanted him to play in the British Columbia (BCHL) or the North American Hockey League (NAHL).  It was pretty clear there would be no United States Hockey League (USHL) opportunities by this time.  Max spoke to Pat Norton, the Tilton Coach, and was told that playing for the Cyclones could be a good thing.  A handful of top end players commit to D1 programs each year and it would be a possibility.  Big fish, small pond.

I was still opposed, but I think my son got a bit panicked and wanted some certainty so he decided he would sign with the Cyclones knowing that he would have some tryout opportunities for teams in the BCHL and NAHL coming up over the summer.  I spoke to Coach Norton.  I had a very good relationship with Pat.  It was respectful, I never butted in or interfered.  I'm a hockey guy.  He's a hockey guy.  We talked hockey all the time.  My kid played for him, but I never was, nor would I be, one of these dads who tries to get in with the coach to connive more ice time or anything like that.  I've seen plenty of kiss ass parents suck up to coaches and it's not very becoming.  

In speaking to Pat about the Cyclones he warned me that Bill Flanagan was concerned about me.  He was worried I would be one of those dads.  It was weird because I'd spent a total of two minutes talking to him and none of it was about my son.  Oh well, what ever.  I would stay quite clear of him should Max end up on his team.  

I was then asked to call Flanagan to discuss the contract and to ask any questions I had.  I had a cordial discussion, got off the phone and sent in Max's contract with a check.  

Yes, you pay to play.  There are three tiers of junior hockey in the U.S.  Tiers 1, 2 and 3.  In addition there are many junior leagues in Canada.  The separate tiers in the states are not determined by skill level officially, but by financial arrangements.  The United States Hockey League (USHL) is the only Tier 1 league.  At this level the player pays nothing.  Many if not most of these players end up playing D1 in college.  The NAHL is the only Tier 2 league in the country.  Here, the players pay nothing to play, for travel or equipment.  But they do pay for their billeting or living expenses.  Finally there are a number of Tier 3 leagues around the country.  In Tier 3 hockey, you pay a fee to play, typically around $6500 for the season as well as your housing which runs about $300 a month to live with a local family and be fed by them.  Around most of the country there is a pretty good difference between these levels. An argument can be made that the the better teams in the leagues in the Northeast, specifically what was at the time the EJHL and to a lesser extent the AJHL could hold their own against some of the Tier 1 and TIer 2 teams.  

Despite costing money, or at least more money to play for one of these leagues, Many players from the northeast elect to stay home, or closer to home where they know they will get excellent exposure to the plethora of colleges in the area.  The geographical footprints of the USHL and NAHL are huge.  While many more players move on from these leagues it can be argued that you can just as easily, if not more so, be scouted in and around New England, New York and the surrounding area with so many schools nearby.

So, Max had a junior team, as a fallback.  The idea was still to attend showcases, tryouts and "main camps" for other leagues and hope something better came along.

I will let you know how that worked out in the next chapter.

No comments:

Post a Comment