The main goal of most junior hockey players is to play at the collegiate level. One place to do this that often gets overlooked is found at the American Collegiate Hockey Association. I was able to speak with the ACHA head coach at Niagara University, Larry Brzeczkowski and his director of recruiting, Clay Miller. They gave me some insight about the recruiting process and what they look for in recruits.
While the ACHA does not give out athletic scholarships, coaches still put a lot of time and resources into developing relationships with recruits and there is still an investment made on behalf of the program. Coaches want to make sure that the players can make the transition to college and at NU, they place academics near the top of their list of criteria.
"For us to be competitive, we have to go after good students. If they get a half scholarship (based on grades and test scores), that could make the difference in them wanting to come here versus another school" said Clay Miller, director of recruiting at NU. "There is probably a direct correlation between the best players on our team, and those having the best grades. They are probably the ones getting the most money from the school."
Other attributes the coaches focus on is leadership and hockey IQ. They both made a point to say they have changed their recruiting efforts to try to bring in more players that will hustle and have knowledge of the game.
"As far as on the ice, we look for knowledge of the game," said head coach Larry Brzeczkowski. "(We want someone) who has a knack for being at the right spot at the right time, not out of position, and who hustles. You can't put enough stock in heart and pride. We'll watch a guy, if his team is down by four goals, does he quit? Or is he still hustling? There's a lot to say about that."
Clay Miller agreed, adding "A lot of it is attitude. How they play away from the puck. Does the player sulk a lot on the ice or do they hustle?"
Another thing they agreed on was the quality of play in the ACHA. Both feel it is a great option for players to keep playing against good competition, and earn an education.
Brzeczkowski gets frustrated with the idea that since the ACHA does not give athletic scholarships, it gets portrayed as a glorified beer league.
"You talk to some people and it (the ACHA) still has that myth of club hockey underneath it," he said. "It's a word we don't like to use. We try to run our program as close to an NCAA level as possible. I think the talent in the ACHA is way underrated, I would be willing to bet we had six to eight guys who could have played NCAA Division- three."
Miller says he has been involved in the ACHA for "about fourteen years" both as a player and a coach. He has seen a big growth in talent over the years.
"There is a lot more motivation for each team to keep raising the bar," he said. "So when each team does that, the whole organization gets better. We compete with the University at Buffalo. They have a great team, great coaches, and we're going after a lot of the same players. They want to beat us, and we want to beat them. That motivates us to go get the top flight players."
"There's a lot to be said for U.S. hockey," Miller added. "I think what you are seeing now is there are a lot of talented players and there is still the same amount of D-1 and D-3 teams. So if you do the math, there are more players, more talent in the system, but the D-1 and D-3 ranks if anything, are strengthening. So you are seeing a flow-over of talent, and I can't complain."