The 2008 NHL draft was this past weekend. The best of times for a lucky few young hockey players...The worst of times for the rest.
Every young hockey player dreams of being drafted and playing in the NHL, so how do you maximize the chances for that to happen?
Let's start at the beginning.
During ages six to 14, make sure you're on a good traveling team. The better the team, the farther it will go not only in your local league, but in regional and national tournaments, too.
Growing up in New York I played for the Oyster Bay Gulls. We played 70-80 games a year all over the U.S. and Canada. We won the pee-wee national championship beating Adray, Mich., in the final (which was broadcast on ESPN) and were even invited to Russia to play against the best teams in Moscow.
There were eight of us who played together from the time we were six years old until we were 14. Seven of us got full or partial hockey scholarships in college.
Most of us went to summer hockey camp: Providence College hockey camp to be exact, led by Lou Lamoriello himself. We were on the ice three times a day, with one session devoted entirely to power skating. It was boot camp for hockey players. It kept me out of trouble in the summer and made me a better goalie. It was also lots of fun.
One summer, my best friend Perry and I attended the camp for almost two months straight and broke the record for the most weeks spent there. Years later, Perry lived in the same dorm we'd slept in at camp while he was on a full scholarship at Providence.
Even at a young age, it pays to get to know the right people.
Perry and I had talent. We played on a great traveling team growing up and went to hockey camp in the summer. However, in the U.S., after age 14 it's all about high school or prep school hockey.
There were no good high school hockey teams on Long Island, so Perry and I knew we had to go somewhere else. At the time, my dad was traveling to Rhode Island once a week for his job, so I either had to go away to prep school or we had to move to Rhode Island. We moved. Perry went away to prep school in Connecticut (Avon Old Farms).
Neither option would have been possible if our families weren't fully dedicated to our hockey careers. Hockey parents are the best parents a kid could have. If you are a kid reading this, don't take it for granted.
U.S. College vs. Major Junior
If you live in Canada, you'll play junior hockey and hopefully get drafted to major junior. This is where you have a choice to make.
There is no doubt major junior is the quickest road to the NHL. You play a full 68-72 game schedule (depending which league you’re in) against incredible talent and loads of NHL scouts are at every game. However, you finish playing at 19 or 20 years old. If you sign a contract with an AHL or NHL team that’s great, but if you haven't, your career could be over.
Canadians can also go the U.S. college route. Paul Kariya is a good example of this.
Kariya played in the British Columbia Junior League, but decided to go to the University of Maine. You can still play in the NCAA as long as you don't play in major junior. Once you've been paid to play (as you are in major junior), you lose your NCAA eligibility.
The greatest benefit of going to a U.S. college comes after your hockey career. Having my degree certainly helped me get into the video game industry. The downside of NCAA hockey is you only play 30-40 games a year and don't graduate until you are 22 or so. By that age, the guys who played major junior already have a couple seasons of pro hockey under their belts.
While Canadian universities have good hockey, it's not a conventional path to the NHL.
Women's hockey is also big in U.S. colleges. If you are a good female hockey player, there are many U.S. college scholarships available.
Whether you are male or female or live in the U.S. or Canada, you have to get your name out there. If you're not being scouted, do it yourself. I know some Canadian players send a "demo reel" of themselves to head coaches of U.S. college programs.
One of them, my friend Dean, got a scholarship to Denver. Many players send letters to college coaches letting them know they're interested, along with a copy of their schedule.
Coaches love kids who are proactive, so if you show an interest, they may send a scout to see you play. Also, remember good grades are essential to getting into a good school. While it's true athletes don't always need the same grades as non-athletes, you'll still need a B average and solid SAT scores.
If you choose college, do your homework first. Find out which team will give you the most playing time as a freshman or sophomore. I had scholarship offers to a bunch of schools. Two of them, Boston University and Northeastern had great goalies who were going to be sophomores. That meant I might not start for another three years.
Boston College had a great goalie who was going into his senior year, which meant I could be a starting goalie in my second year. The choice was easy.
Reaching Your Peak
There are many reasons some great young players don't get drafted or make it to the pros.
Everyone peaks at different times and for different reasons. My teammate in mite hockey (6-8 years old), Joe, was the best mite player on the East Coast. He averaged three goals a game against the best competition. By the time we hit pee-wee (11-12 years old), Joe was a bit overweight and was on our third line.
Another friend of mine was our best player in pee-wee. He was already being scouted and by the time he was in high school, was a surefire first-rounder.
At some point over the next couple of years, he got complacent and fell out of shape. He never excelled in college and went on to play in the East Coast League.
The number of goalies picked before me in the NHL draft could populate a small country. Most of them never played pro hockey because they peaked in junior or in high school.
Here are some major reasons why guys peak early:
Laziness and weight gain
Size and strength limitations
Ego and cockiness
Inability to handle pressure
Loss of focus
Loss of fun
Talent of competition at lower levels was sub-par
Wrong choice of school or junior team
Falling in with the wrong crowd
Parents should keep a close eye on the last one. One of the best things about hockey is it keeps your kids out of trouble, but occasionally there are bad apples on a hockey team. One of the biggest threats to your child succeeding is the other kids at school or down the block, who don't have a sport or talent to guide them.
If you want to be standing on the stage at the NHL Entry Draft, work hard, take advantage of every opportunity and make some of your own.
It's OK if you don't make it. The only thing you'll regret is not trying.
A native of Flushing, N.Y., David Littman was drafted by the Sabres in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft. He spent four years at Boston College before turning pro in 1989. Over the next 10 years, Littman would play in the ECHL, IHL, AHL and NHL (with Buffalo and Tampa Bay). The 40-year-old currently works as a producer for the wildly popular EA Sports NHL series of video games. Read his other THN.com blogs HERE.