University players from Boston College celebrate a coup, but how far will the individuals advance in hockey?
The other day I was doing my usual internet research rounds, digging up websites and sniffing out interesting information. Randomly, I stumbled upon a hockey-related area on one of the popular Q&A sites, and an abstractly-worded query caught my attention. At first glance, the question seemed to be a rather uninformed and unlikely clutch at a late hockey career. But at it’s most basic level, it transcends the game of hockey and relates to all of sports, and perhaps even life itself.
“If I want to make it far in hockey, do I have to be the best player on the team to make it big, in college, the minors, or the NHL?” [This is not a direct quote. Misspellings and errors have be corrected]
More simply: “How does the Average Joe or Joan find his or her place among the stars?”
This topic may be especially pertinent to Bleacher Report writers, who work hard by putting themselves in the shadows of sports stars and superstars. What will it take for us to reach their level and do justice to the games we love via this medium? How do 'the rest of us' best emulate and honour athletic heroes, or even become 'stars' ourselves?
As a hockey writer, I responded to the question with a hockey answer. As a broader concept, many related ideas and responses apply. And with the Olympics and preparatory training in full swing, it seems an appropriate subject. Though I may write about hockey, the topic can relate to almost anyone, especially in sport. I'm curious about what the rest of the Community has to say, and hope other Bleacher Reporters are as keen on open discussion as they usually are. [Leave your thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the page]
As I said before, the nature of the original question led me to assume the author was relatively new to playing hockey, and had not been involved with the game in any serious form.* Most professional hockey players have been on the ice since they could walk, and been active in the organised game at many levels. Every player generally has an innate sense of his or her own raw tools and game style. They’ve been through training, roster cuts, coaching advice, etc, and are usually given a realistic idea of their potential in the sport.
Indeed, many head into the college/junior system never genuinely expecting a star-studded NHL career, though every true competitor lives in hope. In many cases, team staff and franchise ideals allow athletes to develop their overall potential, not just skills at the rink.
A promisingly large proportion of junior players put the education side of their contracts at the forefront, and impressively their clubs are not only supportive of this, but encourage them to put proper effort into their post-secondary learning. As long as players are able to provide a consistently effective on-ice presence and maintain or grow in the classroom, there are few stipulations. Staff know that the skills their players learn at University or college will not only prove central for a future after hockey, but will inevitably teach lessons invaluable for any athlete, such as discipline, focus, and communication.**
This is key to giving participants the best start down whichever path they follow. Scouts, managers, coaches, etc, will always ask questions outside the realm of on-ice play, even outside the game itself. On and off the playing surface it is vitally important for players, especially in hockey, to have a certain amount of intelligence and discipline. It can actually mean the difference between passing muster and missing the boat.
Even those who have been involved with the game for years may fall by the hockey wayside, due to injury, level of talent and competition, consistency, etc. Some lose interest in playing full time, or are unable to impress the coach thoroughly. Others, if they are in school, may simply fail to maintain their grades. Every situation is appraised individually; some make it, some don’t. It can be a tough grind for even the most dedicated and experienced players. Within hockey’s junior systems, there are many life lessons to be learned, even for those outside its boundaries.
That said, with a great deal of training and determination it is possible to make a late start in a sport and find success. Viewers of the first series of CBC’s 2004 hockey reality programme Making the Cut may remember Daniel Jacob, the towering Quebecois defenseman who first laced up his pro-skates at the age of 18. Failing at the game in early childhood, he was never really involved on-ice until he was 14, when he became interested in sports-studies and kinesiology.
Work ethic, determination, and practise, practise, practise allowed the young man to play at the University level shortly after he began training. He was considered a contender to not only play quality hockey, but possibly 'make the cut' and earn a try-out with an NHL club. His size has been utilised in Europe since his graduation from McGill, following a one-game stint in the AHL.
Every sport, every cause, has a few beat-the-odds stories, and it’s rarely unimpressive. Simply taking the risk to try is noteworthy, and athletes can't get anywhere without 'giving it a go'.
Very often the important outcomes in life depend on what a person is doing, what strengths that person possesses, how hard he or she is willing to work, and how realistic the person’s expectations are of themselves. And though the ‘broader question’ is interesting, I am an NHL writer and this is a sports site, and this is an answer for the hockey-hopeful who wrote the question in the first place. The remainder of this was written as such.
The topic, of course, is multi-faceted. Obviously you need to be a good player, but 'good' is a relative term. Going in, remember that different teams and different people are looking for any number of characteristics, depending on a club’s needs. These will include various areas such as skill, on-and-off-ice presence, attitude, and obviously, position.
As a goalie, it can be very, very difficult to carve out a star-studded starter career, even if you do have talent. There are only so many spaces, and consistency is an even bigger factor for netminders than for skaters. You have to be very accomodating, and realise that whatever role you are dealt is best for the team at the moment. As with all hockey positions, practise hard, but become a superb skater and concentrate on athleticism, focus, flexibility, fitness, patience, and reflexes. Work the style which suits you best, and adjust it to your needs and skills, covering all the angles literally and figuratively.
As a forward or defenseman, you'd similarly have to rely on your strengths and adapt them to fill out your game.
If you are/want to be a forward skater and aren't the most offensively talented, work another angle. Become an enforcer, a grinder (very reliable), a pest, or a playmaker. Find a way to plug up any deficiencies in your play with practise, and add facets to your game which either are unique to your team or fresh altogether. Make sure you are also able to keep up your defensive awareness; forwards with little offensive skill and glaring defensive lapses have a tough time because they are a constant on-ice risk to the team, coach, and GM, and unreliable in key situations.
As a defenseman, stay tight. Choose to be an Offensive-D or Defensive-D. If you are an OD, remember to cover your end first, and think twice before pinching or stepping into the play, even after you have the hang of it. If you go with OD, you have to be fast, alert, reflexive, strong, and intelligent. One must be capable of playing forward with the utmost care and responsibility. The position requires a great deal of balance and awareness… otherwise you risk being a forward playing on the defensive roster, and that does no-one any good.
If you go as a DD, it means covering your end like a daemon, and reliably upholding back-end responsibilities. A great position for the intense and focused player. Be ready to block shots and stick to your check like glue. Though it may seem a less glamorous position, there is nothing more courageous or exciting than the sliding defender stopping the flying puck with a body sacrifice, or a complete shutdown of the other team's offence on a man-advantage. That would be your responsibility, and it's more interesting and rewarding than it seems when it‘s done properly.
In any position, a player must learn to adapt to his surroundings, leaving ego behind. Veteran NHL grinder Stephane Yelle is an excellent example of a man who adapted his game to meet the needs of his career and his team, without allowing false self-interest to force him in the wrong direction.
Yelle had tasted scoring-stardom in junior, posting a standout 104 points in 66 games with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals in 1993-94. Following his slightly less productive yet steady final OHL season in 1995, he was drafted and moved twice before the start of the next NHL season. He found himself a part of the newly relocated Quebec Nordiques team, the promising Colorado Avalanche. The new club and Stephane Yelle shared the same rookie year, and both won the Cup in that first season in Denver (1996).
The budding team was propelled by players such as Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Adam Foote, and Patrick Roy, and would only be made stronger in coming years with additions like Alex Tanguay, Milan Hejduk, and Ray Bourque.
Competing with (yet against) some of the best players of the time, Yelle had to adapt early or get lost in the shuffle. Admittedly, the man now known as 'Sandbox' probably wasn’t headed for a Gretzky-like career, but he nevertheless admirably worked himself into one of the most well-rounded and gritty checking-forwards today. Indeed, had he focused more on scoring he’d undoubtedly be a Selke recipient for best defensive forward, but his NHL points never matched his wonderful checking prowess.
His teams have never seemed to mind his comparatively low numbers. Yelle has won two Stanley Cups, and the recent UFA and playoff stalwart is highly-praised by collegues, coaches, and fans wherever he may play. He is just one example of the effect an enduring presence can have, with or without being the best player on the team.
Then again, there are always the ‘naturals’. If you are the next Orr, Gretzky, Roy, Crosby or Ovechkin, you will have skill in spades. Don’t take your talents for granted; living up to one’s own potential is a difficult mental aspect in itself.
It would then be about ensuring that you work hard, earn your spot, balance your game and your personality. The best players in history have been good people, gracious, generous, tough yet kind, competitive, aggressive, tenacious, well-intentioned and sportsmanlike. Most people won't get too far without those in hockey. It may seem like a recklessly rough sport, but the game demands an incredibly high level of discipline and mutual respect, and the ‘unwritten rules‘ of hockey should always apply even in the midst of battle.
There have been a fistful of stars who have broken this mould, blazing through on talent or some unseen intangible and apparently shirking the ‘rules’ of hockey and sportsmanship. While their on-ice careers may have been fruitful in some way, the reactions many of these people receive from peers and the public can be remarkably deflating. Many pro players have had controversial careers, perhaps stellar, perhaps simply present by some unrecognised logic.
Bobby Clarke booed at a podium years after his notorious playing career; Todd Bertuzzi’s contentious and perhaps dwindling hockey tenure; Brett Hull's lax nature and bulging belly; and Mike Commodore’s enormously inflated contract. For some reason, these situations come to mind.
But those players are one-in-a-million and are often remembered more for what they could or should have done and less for what they may have actually accomplished on the playing surface.
Conclusion: In sport, go with your skill set and find a niche. If you can balance talent with learning, practise, determination, and a soupçon of creativity, you have a better chance at going further in hockey and other athletics. Don't fight yourself, and take in all the advice you can get when on the ice. Experience and coaching are invaluable.
Make sure you are confident and passionate, but don't get too full of yourself. Work hard, study harder, prepare for any eventuality. Even if you don't make the NHL or AHL, there are many higher levels of sport which you can participate in, and even work around a regular lifestyle. And if you are in University, study your school work well. It will keep you on the team, prepare you to focus, and give you options for the future. Even the greats know the value of that.
It is tough to break into professional leagues, but it is possible if you put things together correctly. There are many successful players who have worked out a persona or function which their teams find invaluable, even if they are just a small part of the overall picture. Whether or not you become the main cog, to be a part of the bigger machine is in itself impressive. Be persistent, be consistent. Then you'll be set.
Amazingly, the same ideas apply to the realisation of any goal. Find a forté, exercise your talents, work hard, study rigorously, learn as much as you can from everything you do. Utilise your strengths and work on your weaknesses. Rely on your talents, but never take them for granted. Lastly, allow for criticism, because if you can take such input on board gracefully and effectively, praise will surely follow.
What do you think? What would you add, to tailor it to your favourite sport/player/occupation/hobby/etc?
* I made the erroneous assumption that the person who asked the question was older, trying to get into college hockey at 18 or 19 years-old. Rather, this was a 14 year-old player with a lifetime's experience. It just goes to show: we all have questions and more to learn, and we only get better by being brave enough to ask for advice.
** If you are a player hoping to enter into higher levels of hockey while pursuing higher education, remember your choices and be true to who you are and what you want. If you are serious about your studies but have difficulty balancing school and hockey without encouragement, think about US college or University scholarships or signings. You will emerge with more options for the future, but may be less prepared for the realities of professional hockey. If you are able to put extra effort into school while keeping up easily with your game (or if you are more concerned with hockey than your education), major-junior provides the best hockey environment but perhaps less educational support than college. Don't concern yourself too much with scouts and profile. If you put yourself out there in the right way and make an impression, you can be spotted no matter where you play; depending on where you go after hockey is at least as important, especially if you want to continue making an impact on the game.
M MacDonald Hall is the Bleacher Report Calgary Flames Community Leader, and will be adding to that department over the summer. Future articles include a breakdown of Calgary Flames playoff performance in the 21st Century, roster changes and information, and Flames-specific trivia. M’s Bleacher Report archive includes an assortment of Flames/NHL articles.