Playing Collegiate Hockey – Advice from the Experts
Many young student-athletes dream of playing women’s collegiate ice hockey. Many female players in North America and around the world devote a massive number of hours on the ice to improve their skills, as well as work tirelessly to get in shape off-ice, earn great grades, and market themselves to university coaches. Moreover, parents work hard to give their daughters the best opportunities and experiences to help them achieve their dreams.
There are countless stories of how players reached their goal of playing in college and just as many myths about the process. For this article we went straight to the people who know the process the best – the NCAA women’s ice hockey coaches and the independent scouts who advise coaches as they help develop and evaluate players.
What Development Coaches / Independent Scouts Are Saying
Kelly Katorji runs the Rush Hockey Showcases and the Beantown Summer Classic during the off-season. He has been involved in female hockey for over 20 years, running a business around developing players for the next level and also scouting players (not for a fee). Numerous NCAA coaches mention his camps, showcases and tournaments as the best places for off-season development and collegiate scout exposure, and they tout him as an expert in the collegiate process. Because a coach’s time is limited while running programs, fundraising, and recruiting, the coach must rely on people like Kelly, and his programs, to get the word out on how scouting works, what are key player attributes on and off the ice, and how prospective student-athletes are recruited.
For example, Grant Kimball, the associate head coach of the University of Vermont (UVM) for the last five years and who manages recruiting, and individual skill development says, “The one program I would point out would be something called the ‘Rush Showcase’ in Toronto, which happens in June. Kelly Katorji scouts players from all over North America. He has almost every NCAA program involved as part of his staff, and some Canadian CIS coaches. Coaches get on the ice with the players to run practices, interact with them, and it’s one of the best events in terms of exposure.”
There are other programs similar to Rush that are also worthwhile; however, be aware of programs or independent scouts that ask for money for their services. The recruiting process for girls’ hockey is very different from boys’ hockey and from other sports. Be leery of anyone asking for money to connect or market you to coaches. In girls’ hockey, with a little research and hard work on and off the ice, you can reach your goals without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Richard Reichenbach, the co-head coach with wife Sara Reichenback, of the University of Maine says, “Kelly runs winter tournaments, summer showcases, summer camps and summer tournaments. His events are by far the most organized and well attended by college coaches. We currently have 60% of our team recruited from Kelly’s events through Rush hockey. He is also a great resource on all things college hockey and a very neutral source on all things.”
We had the opportunity to talk with Kelly about his programs, but more specifically about the numerous myths regarding the women’s ice hockey collegiate process. Kelly listed points of emphasis for players and parents involved in college preparation from his experience over the past 20 years.
Kelly Katorji of Rush says, “Here is the truth about girls’ hockey in North America and making it to the collegiate level.
1. It doesn’t matter where you play hockey.
- You don’t need to ‘go away’ to play hockey to become a college hockey player. Stay home, save money, and focus on a few scouted tournaments during the season and a few development camps during the off-season for growth/development.
- Sometimes geography appears to be the “enemy” in parts of the U.S. where there are limited teams to play on and playing elsewhere seems to be the only option– however, it is not necessary.
- Play hard, network and communicate with coaches, and you will be fine. If you have the talent and put in hard work and effort to market yourself, you will be picked up.
2. Don’t rush up in level.
- Don’t rush to play the highest level (Tier 1/AAA) until you are ready. Failure rate increases as you move too fast through the system, so take your time step by step.
- You can be seen at all levels (AA thru AAA), and you want to show your best. It is almost better to shine at the lower level than to not be noticed at the highest level – coaches can see your talent regardless of the level and will want to develop it.
3. Don’t try to do everything / Save your money / Invest in good coaches.
- Again, don’t try to go to every scouted tournament out there. Yes, there is a circuit, but 2-3 scouted tournaments in different areas should be enough for competition and visibility. Get value for the money you are spending, perform due diligence off ice to connect with coaches, and ask questions.
- My advice: Save your money for development and invest in good coaches at home.
4. Attend USA Hockey state, district and national camps.
- At minimum, players should attend their USA Hockey State camp for development and to be selected to advance to the District camp.
- Attend the District camp and work hard to get to National camp –a great place to be seen, grow and develop.
5. What works for one girl will be different from another.
- One player’s path to college will always be different than another’s path.
- Just because your friend took one path and is playing collegiately doesn’t mean the same thing will work, or is right for you.
- Everyone needs different things, and I still recommend staying at home and working hard on and off the ice, unless there are special circumstances.
6. Winning isn’t everything.
- Coaches scout and pick up players on teams that lose, not just from winning teams.
- Win, lose or draw – work hard on the ice, show your passion and character, and do your best – the coaches can see past a loss; they see everything on and off the ice.
7. School is key / market yourself / keep connected / communicate.
- You have to work just as hard, or harder, off ice as on the ice.
- Make sure you have top grades – they help your chances.
- Market yourself to collegiate scouts by getting on their prospects list. Complete their online forms, write to them, send video and keep them updated.
8. Play girls’ hockey.
- It is fine to play boys’ hockey when you first start playing and especially when there is no other place to play. In fact, in some areas that is the only choice.
- However, consider making the transition to all-girl hockey when it is available so you can get used to the game and be on teams that are seen and scouted. But again, it is not 100% necessary especially in the hockey hot-bed areas in the U.S.
- In the end, it is a personal choice. Make your decision based on availability of teams, physical ability, social issues, friends, competitive level, scouting, etc.
9. The girls’ process is different from the boys’ process.
- The girls’ route is completely different from the boys’ route to college hockey.
10. Associations need to work together and build relationships vs. stealing players.
- Associations should focus on developing their players vs. recruiting players from other areas. Moving to an association in another state is a waste of families’ money, and their daughters should be able to get what they need locally.
- Prep schools and hockey schools are good options in certain cases; however, they increase the cost quite a bit. If you want to go that route, it should be for more than just hockey. If you do, you still need to put in the off-ice effort (school and marketing), and communicate with coaches.”
Kelly also says, “Whatever you do, ask questions, research all opportunities before spending money, don’t panic, and remember to take it one step at a time. Do not rush yourself through the system and do not let yourself make decisions based on incorrect facts. All you really need to do is ask questions, communicate with coaches, work hard on and off the ice, and play!”
What College Coaches Are Saying
Most collegiate coaches don’t have time to educate players and parents in the key points made by Kelly and other independent scouts; thus, the coaches rely heavily on local associations and off-season development programs/showcases to talk about the process. However, when we reached out to a number of NCAA DI and DIII coaches, they were happy to pass along a few tips about preparing to play college hockey.
Shannon Desrosiers is the co-head coach of the Clarkson University women’s ice hockey team, which just captured the 2014 NCAA DI Women’s National title. She emphasizes a well-rounded student-athlete as the prime candidate for their program.When asked about what she looks for on the ice when scouting a prospect, Coach Desrosiers says, “Work ethic first and foremost, then hockey smarts and skating; always have a good attitude (be a team player) and work ethic on the ice.”
Brian Idalski is entering his seventh season as Head Coach for the University of North Dakota (UND), and he goes global to recruit the top-end talent from USA Hockey, Hockey Canada and the International Ice Hockey Federation. In 2012-13, Idalski led the UND program to new heights as the team reached the WCHA Final Face-Off championship game for the first time, and made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament. The 26-12-1 season marked the third straight-season of 20-plus wins.
Coach Idalski spoke to us about the key factors for advancing in girls’ hockey. He says, “Here is a little insight on what we focus on when recruiting:
1. Focus on development.
- We really look for players from associations which focus on development.
- I am not in favor of tournament-only teams [teams that don’t practice and play together in a regular league] because they don’t focus on development.
- The mind-set of running around and chasing tournaments to be seen is counterproductive to strong, long-lasting growth and development of a player.
2. You don’t have to go to every scouted tournament.
- Go to a few scouted tournaments a year and then off-season camps where the coaches are.
- Some players are ‘over-seen’, so if you live elsewhere, it could actually be a benefit.
3. If you aren’t seen that often, send video to coaches.
- Connect with coaches and send them videos periodically.
- If we are interested, we will find a way to see you play at some point.
4. Do well in school and connect with coaches.
- If you have strong grades, they will help your chances.
- Ensure you fill out prospective player’s forms online and connect with coaches each year.
5. Focus on strength and conditioning.
- Strength and conditioning become separators for recruitment. Ensure you have an off-ice program that is age-appropriate, and build your strength and conditioning on and off the ice to separate yourself from the competition.
6. Where / how we scout.
- We identify the top players in various countries by attending the USA Hockey, Canadian and Finnish Hockey national development camps (each age group). When players make their country’s 18U Development teams, we track them from there.
- We scout a few key tournaments each year in the mid-west and on the east coast.
- We may attend USA Hockey / Canadian Nationals.
- Sending video is so important if you don’t live in a hockey hot-bed or have the other opportunities I mentioned.
Above and Beyond the Basics
Ensuring you follow the advice of scouts and coaches is critical; however, coaches point out that they are keenly interested in a few more important aspects they take into consideration when making a final decision between one player and another.
These elements include:
Time management skills
Ability to lead and follow
Coaches want you to be successful when you go to their school and join their team, so they look for student athletes with ability and skills to balance school and hockey. They want academically sound players, not only with respect to getting into school, but excelling while there. Sometimes it is hard to determine which prospects have these qualities to succeed, but strong study skills and motivation are highly desirable to coaches. These qualities translate to good grades and strong performances on the ice in high school.Coach Desrosiers from Clarkson states, “It is never too early to focus on your grades and training so that you have as many options as possible.”
Coach Idalski – UND
Coach Idalski for UND shares, “When looking at a player, we don’t just look at on-ice performance. We are deeply interested in players who are self-motivated in the area of strength and conditioning. We seek out players who can motivate and push themselves to improve on the ice, off the ice in regard to their physical and mental condition, and in the classroom.”
Players who know how to manage their time in high school will successfully juggle going to college, playing hockey as much as 1-2 hours a day, working out every day, traveling to games, working for the team at charitable events, and managing daily life such as doing laundry and paying bills. Playing NCAA DI and DIII is much like holding a full-time job while you go to school, so time management is crucial. Coaches do not want to see you taking on more than you can handle. They want you to ensure you do well whatever you do, even if it’s just school and hockey, because that illustrates your ability to balance your life.
Coach Desrosiers describes a typical day’s schedule for student athletes at Clarkson University, “Class is from 8:00 am – 10:00 am, practice is 11:15am – 12:45pm, workout at 1pm (on M and W), and then back to class for the afternoon. We also do team video on Tuesday nights. Night time is for studying and group work.”
Desrosiers continues, “Character is huge, and it is always nice when kids do community service or hold summer jobs in high school because that shows that they can balance a lot while training and playing hockey.”Focusing on making the team is only half the battle–succeeding and excelling in college and on the ice once you get there is the other half. It is not unheard of for players to reach their goal of playing collegiate hockey but not goal set to be successful once there. In fact, some players go home when they can’t adjust to the intense schedule of hockey and school.
In most cases, schools help make the transition from high school to college life and hockey. When a player joins the team there is a big adjustment as Coach Desrosiers points out. “It is a whirlwind the first month, but our freshmen adapt quickly with the help of our upper classman. School, hockey, and then social life is the order of priority. We have study hall and academic advisors that are here for our players, and at a small school it is really hard to slip through the cracks. There are a lot of safety nets in place to make sure they succeed in all areas.”
Coaches are also extremely interested in building a unified team that works hard together, gets along well, and holds each other’s best interest at heart. If you have a negative attitude, think only of yourself and/or aren’t a strong teammate, then it will lessen your chances. Coaches can know these things about you by talking to your coaches, competitors or camp coaches, as well as by observation. Coaches are always watching, and they see your character in your behavior on and off the ice. All coaches look to add quality people to their roster, not individuals who will cause trouble and ruin a season for them. Because, in the end the championship team doesn’t have to worry about people getting along, they just have to worry about putting the puck in the net and defending their own.
UND’s Coach Idalski states, “We are genuinely interested in strength in character: how the player handles themselves in times of adversity – with a positive or negative attitude; how a player leads and follows; how they interact with their teammates; how they add to their environment and the people around them in a positive way.”
Coach Desrosiers of Clarkson discloses, “Leadership is key, but so is following; we want kids that show good leadership skills, but are able to take instruction and want to improve. It is always a good sign if they are leaders on their current teams.”
UVM’s Coach Kimball summarizes, “You could be the most skilled player on your team, have the most points, but if you’re not a good person, a good teammate and have a bad attitude–That’s when college programs will take a pass on you.
Some of my best recruiting decisions don’t even come from watching players on the ice. They come from sitting in the lobby and watching players interact with her teammates or her parents after a game they’ve just lost. How do they act towards one another? Does she throw her bag on the floor in disgust and hold her hand out for money from mom and dad? Or does she console a teammate who looks to be affected by the loss? The bottom line is: Who am I going to trust with $200,000 – $300,000 over the course of four years’ worth of scholarships, ice time, equipment, food, hotels etc. I know this much, it’s not going to be the player that acts like a jerk.”
Wrapping it all up
Being a top talent will only get you so far, so it is important that you take the time to ensure you can distinguish the myths from the realities of the collegiate process as you work toward reaching your goal. Make sensible decisions for what is right for you as you spend countless hours in the classroom, on the ice, on the road, in the gym, marketing yourself and communicating with coaches.
Each path is different for each student-athlete and what works for one player won’t is not guaranteed to work or be necessary for another player. If you properly prepare, work hard, listen to the experts, and are passionate in all that you do – things will fall in line for what is right for you. Meanwhile, enjoy the journey and your time playing the sport of hockey.