Navigating AAA hockey and beyond, the good, the bad and the ugly.

We Love Kits
We Love Kits
Published on April 15, 2020

For those of you that are hockey parents, let me share some insight about the world of AAA hockey and beyond.

So where should I start? You have a son/daughter that loves to play hockey. They have a knack for it and are showing promise at a young age. They are getting to the age where AAA hockey begins.

My story relates back to our experiences with the GTHL in Ontario. My son showed a knack for playing hockey at a young age and loved it. So when it was time to move to the next level, the GTHL was the league of choice in and around Toronto.

At the time, our son was playing for an organization that had a select team. Most of that team moved on to an organization that had a AAA team in place.

I can’t remember the exact costs. But we went from about $1000 per season to $6,000. That didn’t include travel and related costs for any of the tournaments that we did out of town. We were lucky to play in Toronto for our proximity to local tournaments.

That being said, we usually had 2-3 tournaments out of town. The team fees included some equipment, not sticks or skates or any of the protective gear. Just the outer layer.

The amount of ice time increased as well. We played 32-33 games over the course of a season. Throw in another 12-20 tournament games. And, if you made the playoffs another 4-25 games would be played.

We would normally have 2 practices a week, sometimes more if we had extra ice time. In Ontario, it all started with Minor Atom at 9 years of age. If you are a hockey parent, we learned quickly that your son’s age wasn’t discussed. In our case, he was a 99! So conversations with other parents would end with our son is a 99, oh, ok.

Now PRIORITY #1: coaching, find a coach that talks to you about teaching your son skills. In our loop, most of the coaches were intent on winning, nothing else was important. So our coaches focused on winning and SYSTEMS. At 9 years of age. No talk about skills, just barking numbers from the bench and getting in position. Doesn’t that sound like fun, well it wasn’t.

Ask the coach when you interview them, what’s your coaching philosophy, how do you coach. What’s most important to you. Ask to speak to Parents from the previous season to validate this, multiple parents, ask around.

Let me give you an example. We played the first 2 years in an organization that in hindsight we should have run away from as fast as we could. The first clue, when the head coach told all of the players behind closed doors that they couldn’t tell the parents anything that was being said. This was done after all the players were signed. The players were 9 years old! Run people, run..

Two years of that insanity and we were ready to move on. And our son was ready to quit hockey if that was going to be the norm. The organization decided to bring in a new coach. He promised us that things were going to be different, his coaching style was “different”. This was conveyed to us in multiple in-person meetings.

No swearing at the kids, yes, this had been going on with the previous coaches. For some reason, in hockey, this was supposed to be normal and acceptable behaviour for our son’s role models. So we decided we would do year 3 with the same team after the new coach promised things would be different.

Day 1 of Training Camp! My son comes home from the rink and says Dad, I’m done. The new head coach had promised change. Well, day 1 of training camp he swore non stop for 90 minutes and broke a stick by snapping it over the boards. Perfectly acceptable behaviour for a head coach working with 10 year olds.

I told my son that we would find a new team for him. He was worried about the fall out of going back to the rink the next day and having to deal with the Coach. We told him, don’t worry about that because you aren’t going back, and you won’t have to speak with the Coach.

That’s the kind of fear that some of these “Coaches” instil in our kids. It doesn’t matter what sport. The same rules apply when you interview any of the so-called “experts” who will be dealing with your children.

We called the head coach and told him why our son wouldn’t be coming back. He apologized and said that it wasn’t as bad as our son had said it was. So, in other words, we should accept his explanation over our son’s. So now we are sh*t outta luck, all the teams have started training camp and we are without a team.

So, now that we have “abandoned” the team we had to meet with the GM of the organization and request a release. Yes, you sign a contract with an organization and they now own your rights.

I made an appointment to meet with the GM. I sat down and explained what the Coach had promised and how he drastically under-delivered on that promise on day 1 of training camp.

He looked at me, smiled, and said, well, the head Coach is just “Old School”. I said, you mean by old school, he’s verbally abusive. Well, no, you’re twisting my words. He just has an old school approach to the game.

I said that’s fine. My son isn’t going to play for an old school coach this season. At that point, the GM looked at me and said you’re lying! Excuse me? You’re lying. We know you’re best buddies with the head coach of another team and you just want to go there instead.

You think if that was the case I might have signed up for that team in the offseason, Mr Rocket Scientist. His response again was you’re lying. We won’t be giving your son his release. He can go back to the team.

So one of the largest hockey organizations in the world had an organization, a GM who was calling me a liar to my face, and telling me that they would prevent my son from playing hockey this season because they had a contract. All of this at 10 years of age. I was left thinking, what the hell are we doing!

We didn’t go back to the team. The organization made my son sit out 8 weeks of the season before they granted his release. In later years this organization approached us to come back, over my dead body.

So just be very careful and do your homework before you commit to anyone, any team. It’s not worth the aggravation and it’s definitely not worth putting your child into a bad situation.

My son ended up playing 8 years in the GTHL playing AAA hockey. He played with 3 organizations. He wasn’t the biggest player, he didn’t have an early growth spurt, and he played different sports in the offseason. He didn’t have great coaching along the way. He had determination, will power and a desire to win. (The teams he played for didn’t win much!)

Looking back, I’m not sure how he survived all those years. We always gave him the opportunity to play, supported him and encouraged him. Other parents were yelling at their son’s on the drive home after games. This from my son. Most of those boys who were being yelled at for making mistakes in youth hockey didn’t survive. How could you? It was a pressure cooker.

On a side note. My wife and I were walking in our neighbourhood one Sunday afternoon. We heard someone yelling. It was a neighbour. The son was 12 and standing in the driveway being verbally abused by his father.

It seems the son hadn’t played up to Dad’s standards. So he was being trashed by good old dad in the driveway. We took the son and daugher to the park while Dad cooled down. Sadly, we saw way too much of this over the years, at the rink, at the baseball diamond, at the soccer field. Parents ruining it for their kids. Coaches ruining it for the kids. It’s supposed to be fun, if it isn’t get them out.

So the big year in hockey is your draft year. Minor Midget. It was insanity at the rinks before the draft year. Going into this season it was insanity, parents frothing at the mouth. Let’s start with tryouts though in the spring. The team we played on had a large contingent of players coming up from AA. They wanted a chance to get seen and to get drafted.

The Manager of the Team, (Now you have to understand that Team Managers at this level are Dad’s who have talked their way into the position with the Head Coach). They influence decisions on who makes the team.

Most of the Coaches don’t have time to scout so they are relying on a parent to make recommendations. Well, you better hope that your son is good friends with the Managers son. Of course, they are going to be helping out their friends, making sure their sons get on the team.

In some circumstances, parents would end up paying more than the team fee, or “sponsoring” the team to make sure their son had a spot on a AAA team. This happened way too often, from day 1 right up to the draft year.

My son was 5″7″ in the spring of tryouts for Minor Midget. He had played Centre for all of the previous seasons and out of necessity had become a player that could shut down the opposing team’s top players.

I remember one game from the previous season, unfortunately, it was the same day as a tryout. The Coaches were fed up with most of the players. I think we were losing 8-1, and playing defence wasn’t on the mind of most of our players. They wanted points, the only way to be recognized.

It was my sons shift, his line battled hard and didn’t allow any chances. When he came over to the bench get off, the coaches told him to stay on for another shift. This continued for the last 12 minutes of the 3rd period.

The other parents were upset because my son wasn’t coming to the bench, this from a player who would play hard for 40 seconds and then come to the bench. It didn’t matter, he was taking valuable ice time away from the other players.

The other team didn’t score another goal that game. The coaches were trying to make a statement to the rest of the team. That message didn’t get across to the players or the parents.

Some of the parents had deals in place with their sons, get a goal or get an assist and they would get paid. Cause and effect, except this created a me first attitude. It didn’t work well on a last place team.

So back to his Minor Midget year. His tryout after that game was a disaster. His legs were like jelly and the Head Coach who had asked us out didn’t even reply to my calls.

My son was 5″7″ in the spring of tryouts for Minor Midget. He had played Centre for all of the previous seasons and out of necessity had become a player that could shut down the opposing team’s top players.

He would routinely win 70% of his faceoff’s. Something that in today’s game is recognized as a good thing, puck possession and all. Well, seems like he was up against the Team Manager’s son for ice time. So with no prior experience, the Coach took him aside and told him he wanted him to play on defence!

Our team finished last that season. We routinely lost games 6-1, 8-2. With all of the hype around the draft, our team didn’t have any players that were noticed that year. My son finished the year with 4 assists. He didn’t play on the powerplay because he didn’t have the big shot from the point. He did play against the top lines in the league, and on most nights those players would be frustrated during those shifts.

My son was disappointed he didn’t get drafted that year. That had been his dream, yes his dream not mine since he started playing. That was the make it or break it year for many of his friends. Parents had decided that players weren’t good enough, so investing $6-10K a year in the dream, usually the parents dream, wasn’t going to happen anymore.

For the players that did get drafted. This meant leaving home at 15 years of age and billeting with a family you didn’t know, in a city you didn’t know. In hindsight, given some stories we heard from our son, we were just as happy this wasn’t the route he was taking. **If you play 1 game at the CHL level, you can no longer play in the NCAA**.

My son still loved playing hockey so we told him nothing was going to change. He had played AAA baseball up until about the age of 13, Had won a provincial championship, but hockey was his love.

Just a note on summer camps. My son played with 2 teams that played in the Chowder Cup in Boston. The first year the team did really well, not so much in year 2. He also went to a 4 day “NCAA” camp in Michigan. It promoted the camp as an opportunity to get exposure to NCAA Coaches and scouts.

We did all of the above because it was fun. The NCAA camp was great because he had the opportunity of playing at 2 NCAA rinks – Michigan State and Bowling Green and staying overnight in the dorms. So an early University experience for him. I asked 3 different NCAA head coaches if they are actively scouting at these types of events. The answer was a unanimous no.

When tryouts came for Midget, the head coach asked him what position he wanted to play. He said Centre. The Coach rolled his eyes and said what about D? So he tried out for the team as a Centre and was named Captain of the Midget team that year. Most of the team was from AA. Another season of frustration seemed likely. We finished 11th out of 12 teams that year.

We had also heard of Provincial Junior A hockey at this point. A good friend of the family had a son playing on a team, so we used to go out and watch the games. It was fast hockey. Playing Junior A gave you the opportunity to be seen by NCAA scouts. Another opportunity to continue playing the game he loved while getting a good education. It seemed like a good idea.

The organization had a rookie camp every spring for players to be seen for the next season. We decided to register our son, who wanted to give it a shot. It was about $350 for 4 games guaranteed. About 120 players show up.

He tried out as a forward. At this point, he had grown and was about 5 “10” and weighed about 165 lbs. He had a decent camp, I think he had about 5 points in 4 games and didn’t look out of place. At the end of tryouts, the team notifies you if they want you for next season.

To the credit of the organization, they took the time to speak to every player after that tryout. One of the owners told my son that they liked the way he played, and wanted him to become part of their development program. That program was going to cost about $1000 for the season. That was for the opportunity to practice with the Coaches of the Jr A team for the next season but not play on the team.

When tryouts for Jr A were posted again in the Spring we had debated about going back. We just didn’t know if it was a cash grab or if indeed it gave you an actual opportunity to make the team. The same owner who had spoken to my son talked to my wife after one of the practices and strongly recommended we attend the tryouts.

We did, another 120-140 players showed up in the spring hoping to make the team. They had about 6-7 roster spots available but we didn’t know how many they had already filled prior to the tryout. My son had another good showing, the coaches were impressed and asked him to come back to the main camp.

Prior to the camp, he received another offer from a Junior A team. We called the coaches back and they asked us to come in to discuss before we made any decisions. When we arrived they told us that they were going to offer our son a forward spot on the roster for next season. That was the last spot that they had. And a thrilled son who finally seemed to be getting a break for all of the time and effort he had put into it. Yippee!!

The team had high hopes that season. We had a lot of senior players with skill. My son, being the last player chosen, seemed to spend more time in the stands, and when he did get to play would only see limited ice time. More frustration, but he was hoping if he continued working hard his time would come.

(**In Junior A the team holds your rights as a player and they can trade you at any time**) We saw players come and go and it was heartbreaking for both the players and the family. It’s a business at this level and sometimes tough decisions have to be made.

About halfway through that season one of our D’s got injured. The coaches knew our son had played D for one season so they asked him if he would give it a shot. He did and he didn’t look out of place. All of that defensive hockey over the years and skating backward to defend served him well.

The team expected to challenge for the Championship that year. We ended up losing in the 3rd round of the playoffs to our nemesis. My son sat out the first 7 games. He was able to get into a few of the final games. He scored the first goal of one of our last games as a forward before the season came to an early close. You can see it in the video below at 20:33:

You can see the goal at 20:33 of the video..

My son ended up with 1g, 4a for 5 points and 1 goal in the playoffs that year. The team had 33 wins that season. My son finished the season playing every position except goaltender. He would have if they had asked!

The next season the coaches asked our son if he would consider playing D full time. His passion was still as a forward so he told them so. The season started and in game 2 they asked him to play D. He had played his last game as a forward.

He was paired in season 2 with a good friend of his who was known as being an offensive defenceman. My son was asked to play a defensive role, look after business in his own end and limit the other team’s chances.

We had lost some good players from the previous season, so we didn’t expect to do as well this season. My son played in every game, finished with 3G, 16A for 19pts and another 6 points in 12 postseason games.

We lost in 7 games in the 2nd round. Some scouts from some of the NCAA hockey programs had been in contact with his head coach, but no offers had been made. If you had been drafted in the CHL/OHL, and had taken the Junior route, the chances of getting an early NCAA offer was higher. The team finished with 38 wins this season.

Year 3 with this organization, 2nd full year as a defenceman, and this year he was named as an Assistant Captain on the team. We still had a strong core of players returning so the team expected to do well this year.

The team had a strong start to the season. We won 9 of our first 10 games, so I think everyone thought that this might be our year. My son got off to a strong start. This was his first season that he had a chance to play on the PP. He was now 6″1″, and his shot from the point had consistently improved. He had 2 overtime goals early in the season to keep the team’s streak alive.

The team finished the season with 44 wins, a record year. We won all 4 rounds of the playoffs and went to the Provincial finals. We won a hard-fought final game, and we were on to the Canadian finals.

As the season progressed my son was getting more notice. Scouts from different NCAA programs were in contact. A few of the programs invited him for a visit to the school. As a player you are allowed 5 “official” visits. An official visit counts when the University pays for you to visit. So they pay for your flight, meals, overnight accommodation.

The first school that contacted him I had never heard of. Some of these hockey programs are schools that as Canadians we might not be familiar with. That was true for me. It turns out this school had one of the best business programs in the country. What did I know! The school was really interested but we didn’t hear back. No reason was given.

As you go through the process you hear different things. One of the comments that we heard often was:

(1) The school has to have an opening for the player – so a Left D in our case.

(2) The school is probably looking for a certain “type” of player – the way you play is important. Or at least the perception of how you play, and does that fit with the Coach and the team?

(3) Financials – so what are they offering you to play. Athletic scholarship, do you qualify for an Academic scholarship. Funding? All of these things come into play. If you don’t fit into the right box you might not get an offer.

(4) Don’t put all of your eggs into the CHL basket. NCAA is a great option, but, you have to have the marks to qualify. Be thinking 75% minimum coming out of Gr 12. 80% and above and you tick off that box. 85% minimum required for IVY League programs. So you need those percentages plus you need to do well in the SAT’s.

So academically you need to be focused as early as Gr 9 to make sure that you have the marks. Also, you need to have certain courses taken through high school. You may have graduated and then you find out that you are missing a mandatory course from the NCAA to qualify. Investigate early and talk to your Son’s/daughter’s guidance. They should know what is required and will be able to make sure that all the boxes are ticked off.

All of the visits were happening prior to the playoffs. It can be any time during the season, just happened to fall when it did. My son ended up getting multiple scholarship offers. He chose the one that felt right for him.

His decision was based on the league that this school was in. What was the competition like. How difficult was the hockey loop. He wanted a competitive hockey league. Now they all are at this level but some more than others.

His Jr team ended up losing a hard-fought 2-1 game in the Semi finals. A heartbreaking end to an amazing season. This was his first championship in hockey since he started playing AAA at 9 years of age. So 11 years of competitive hockey, first championship!

He finished the season with 12G, 43A for 55 points. The most points for a defenceman in his league. He had 3G, 15A in the playoffs, including the game-winning goal in his provincial championship game. (You can see it at the 5:15 minute mark of the video)

So 15 years of hockey, 12 years as a forward, and all of his hard work and effort resulted in a NCAA Div 1 scholarship. He would tell you that his best years, where he received the best support and coaching was at the age of 17 in Jr A provincial hockey.

The earlier years shaped him as a player. He was forced to learn how to pass the puck at an early age. He was usually on the defensive side of the puck for all of those years in AAA. He had to work hard and never give up. Although some days were better than others. A couple of coaches identified that his strongest position might be as a D. Would he have received scholarship offers as a Forward?

If you go the CHL route, you finish playing hockey at 20 years of age. If you are lucky. Sometimes the teams will release you in your final year of eligibility. They can only have so many overage players. After you finish in the CHL, your hockey can continue in the CIS.

If you go the NCAA route you normally start as a 20-year-old and graduate at 23. So you have a 3-4. years longer to play at a high level vs the CHL option. Plus you get an education. Most CHL players also get Education dollars to spend towards a CIS education. These packages self destruct 18 months after the players overage season. So if they continue to play for a while they potentially lose the Education package.

So the moral of the story. Don’t give up, work hard. Continually improve and practice. Hope for some breaks. Give your children a reason to believe in themselves and support them. If all else fails, they have some great building blocks to be successful in life. Now my son gets to start at the bottom again and work his way to the top 😉

You might also like: The NCAA Division 1 Hockey Experience, Balancing Hockey and Studies, What’s Involved

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