AP's Coaches Blog; So You Want to Go to Prep School..

Before I start this article, I hope that everyone is staying safe from COVID-19 and is doing their part to stop the spread of the pandemic.

During the Spring, hockey ends and all eyes shift to the upcoming season. Between January and June of any given year, you'll often see a lot of "commitments" from players to attend prep schools and colleges, as well as early Major Junior and Junior A signings. Most people look at these signings and think "what a great opportunity", but in reality, not all situations are created equally. I decided to write this article to better inform parents of players who wish to move on to "the next level" of their playing careers, which in Newfoundland, usually involves moving off the island.

The "going away" banter usually starts in second year Bantam (13 year olds turning 14 that year). On the male side, the top male players in an age group usually (I speak in generalities because not all do) have player agents; these agents can also go by the term "advisor", "family advisor" or "client representative". I will use these terms interchangeably in this paragraph even though they are distinctly different in the eyes of the industry and the NCAA. Personally, I think that having an agency such as Roy Sports Group, Evolution Sports Management, Cutting Edge Management or Quartexx can help a player "find the right fit" which I will discuss further in the following paragraphs. These agencies are loaded with people who are educated, have been around hockey for a long time, understand that not all opportunities are created equally, and that there are different paths for different people. These agencies will speak on your behalf and actively pursue options using their vast hockey contact lists; but unfortunately, agents can't represent everyone and you will not see many female hockey players with family advisors. It's just the reality of the industry.

Without an agent, it is often the role of the parent to go through the decision-making process when it comes to selecting the best place for their son or daughter to play hockey in the upcoming season(s). This decision can be stressful, challenging, and overwhelming to a lot of people so lets hope that this article is used to help parents in this situation make informed and educated choices. Before making any educated decision, here are some factors that must be considered (in no particular order as all factors have to be considered to make a smart choice):

Factor 1 - Cost

This factor has to be considered, especially in the relation to the word "value" (what you are getting for your money). If a prep school calls you and is interested in your son/daughter but is not willing to commit any financial resources to them, you are going to pay a great deal of money, per year, for multiple years. I often relate this to relationships; if he/she is genuinely interested in you, he/she will sacrifice something of value to court you... if they do not, they probably aren't that into you! In a relationship, this sacrifice may be the most valuable resource of all (time). In the hockey world, this sacrifice is often a combination of time AND financial compensation. If the prep school isn't willing to make a financial commitment to you, do they truly think much of you as a player? The answer is NO. I always laugh when parents come back to me and say "the school says they do not have any funding left for this year" and maybe they are telling the truth. But they will have funding the following year, and the year after that. If a school was really, genuinely interested in acquiring you, they would figure out a way to "sweeten the pot" to make you attend their school. It is that simple. How much compensation you receive often relates to my next factor:

Factor 2 - Ice Time OPPORTUNITIES

I capitalized "opportunities" because at the end of the day, it is the player who decides what happens with an opportunity by doing the little things right, being consistent, executing at a high level, helping the team win, etc etc etc. Players who receive a great deal of financial compensation to attend a prep school are highly-regarded players who the school was very high on during the recruiting process, and will have more opportunities (especially at the beginning of a season) than a player who pays the full amount to attend. Why else would a prep school commit so much to this player? I'll use an example below..

Player A pays 5 figures off the sticker price of attending ___ Prep School through various scholarships/bursaries/whatever fancy term you want to put here. Player B gets $0 off the sticker price. Who do you think the coach likes more? Who do you think will start on the power play at the beginning of the season and who will probably start on the 4th line/6th defenceman? While I agree that society loves a good underdog story, lets be realistic - we'd rather have the opportunities there for us as opposed to hope and pray that we get one. We'd rather play 20 minutes a night with highly-skilled players in favourable scenarios (power play, O zone starts) as opposed to 9 minutes a night with not as skilled players, with minimal (if any) power play time.

Ice time opportunities can also relate to opportunities to develop as a player through practices/skills sessions. Does the prep school have a rink on campus? How often does the team practice? Are there opportunities to attend open ice sessions? Does the program have position-specific coaches (goalie coach/skills coach/D coach)? These questions have to be asked. I know there are prep schools out there that do not have position-specific coaches, which in today's game is a must (think of the value term I used above - what are you getting for your money).

There have also been situations that pertain to players moving away to play an unfamiliar position(s). Example - School A calls and tells a player that they are full at forward, but have roster space on D for the upcoming season. While coaches love players who are well-rounded and can play all positions, spending 5 figures to learn how to do it at a level that is very high-paced is probably a dangerous decision (moving from centre to wing, or vice-versa, is not what I am talking about here either). I have seen way too many players move away to play a totally different position, and what usually happens is the player loses confidence because the first impression of prep school becomes "I'm uncomfortable on the ice, and I'm uncomfortable off the ice". In my opinion, a prep school that wants a forward to play defence (or vice-versa) while giving them $0 off the sticker price to do so is not ethically responsible; the school is just looking to fill out their roster because they cannot find enough players at the forward or defence position to do so.

Factor 3 - The People Behind the Program

Who's coaching? Does the program have a track record of moving players on to the next level (Junior/College/University/Pro)? How many players have committed to higher levels of hockey from the program in the previous 2-3-5 seasons since the coaching/management staff has been there? Do former players have good things to say about the program? What is the head coaches philosophy? What values and beliefs do the coaching staff hang their hats on? Yes, this means doing homework and calling players from previous years. The best decisions are usually made from acquiring the right information.

Please note that some prep schools have multiple teams - some go by age (U16/U18), some by colour (Team Red/Team Black), some by jargon (Junior Varsity/Varsity). I have seen situations where players are recruited by prep schools thinking that they are playing for a specific coach on a specific team, only to find out that the coach they coveted only works with Team Black and their son/daughter is on Team White (example). If a school has 5-6 prep teams, ask yourself this question; "is this program about developing players both academically and athletically, or is it about taking anyone and everyone to fill up rosters...?"

I would also recommend that parents beware of schools that "cast a very wide net" when recruiting players to attend their school. Quality prep school programs recruit great players who excel in the classroom and are excellent people. I would even go as far as asking the coach if they have seen your son/daughter play before, and if so, what their strengths and weaknesses are. I will say this over and over to people - you want the coach to like you a lot going in!

Factor 4 - The Education

When you attend prep school, the word "school" is just as important as the hockey component (or more). What are the class sizes? Is the school implementing technology into the classroom? Who teaches at the school, and what kind of backgrounds do they have? Does the school offer courses that stimulate interest in a particular subject matter that your son/daughter may want to pursue once they reach university?

Factor 5 - Living Arrangements

This is a very under-valued aspect of moving away from home to play at any level, let alone prep school. But in this case, a parent has to ask him/herself the following; How many individuals stay in a room together? Will my son/daughters room mate speak english (international students are very common at prep schools)? Does my son/daughter have in-room access to a fridge/microwave/area to keep snacks? How big are the rooms? Does each room have a shower area or is there a community shower room?

Factor 6 - The Player

This is often the toughest factor to evaluate, because it is hard for parents to accurately evaluate their own child without bias. But for the sake of your child and your wallet, a parent must look at the following; how mature is my son or daughter? Does my son or daughter handle adversity well? Is my son or daughter ready to fit the demands of a busy hockey and academic schedule while I'm not there to push them? Is my child self-motivated? Has my son or daughter experienced life away from us parents for a long period of time before, and if so, how did they handle it? How old is my son/daughter?

Factor 7 - Intangibles

This factor encompasses everything from team travel schedules, to weight room facilities, to proximity to airports. Again, the best decision is often made by quality preparation and factors that fall under intangibles should be investigated.

If a parent investigates all of the above factors appropriately, he/she will have a much better indication of what to do. I would also recommend doing a campus visit (or get someone who you trust to visit the campus for you and send photos/videos to you). Since this is your child's education, being well-informed is never a bad decision.

Sometimes, the best decision is to wait. One popular trend right now (on the male and female side) is players leaving the province to attend schools in Grade 9. Personally, I believe that there is still great hockey to be played on the island - strong guys/girls have AAA Bantam (I'd like to see the Monctonian be added back to the tournament list), and have AA Bantam in town or can play with their home association if outside of town. If you're a real strong Grade 9 female, play AAA Bantam boys! One of the best female players in the province right now (Abby Newhook) played AAA Bantam boys, and quite frankly, I believe that it helped her development because the competition was strong, and the physicality of the level equipped her with the knowledge of how to compete at higher female levels which are pretty physical.

To conclude...

1) As a parent, make sure you do quality homework before making a decision on whether to attend a prep school. Don't just browse the school's web site, call 1-2 people, and call it a day.

2) Ask the hard questions, and be honest with your assessment of your child; if they're not mature enough in grade 9 or 10, WAIT. If they're playing out of position, getting $0 towards their tuition and the program isn't head-over-heels interested in you, WAIT. Other opportunities will come along that will be more favourable, which will ultimately give your son/daughter a better chance to succeed at the prep hockey level.

3) At the end of the day, is choosing to go to one prep school over another (or choosing to go away altogether) going to make your son/daughter a better hockey player and student? If the answer is 'no' or 'maybe', are you going to get value from the decision to go?

4) See below for an example of a "great fit" for a player. If you find that your school does not check off a lot of (if not all of) the boxes, maybe it would be wise to consider other alternatives (another school, stay home):

- Largely reduced sticker price, or at bare minimum (even with high-earning parents), some reduction to the tuition because the coaching staff is high on you as a player. This will make trust-building easier and open up more in-game opportunities to have success.

- Exceptional hockey program that has a reputation of moving players to higher levels of hockey. School alumni speaks for itself. Selective recruiting processes; school does not take just anyone who can pay the tuition.

- Daily or every-other-day practice time with quality off-ice training facilities, quality positional coaches, and access to regular skill development sessions.

- Top-flight education run by highly-educated, engaged teachers who live in 2020 (tech-savvy, integrate technology into the classroom seamlessly).

- Quality accommodations (this means different things to different people, so make sure your son/daughter is comfortable with them)

- Player is mature beyond their years, is self-motivated, understands school-life balance and is able to balance a hectic schedule without being reminded.

Until Next Time,