Bustling high school hallways across the nation are filled with junior level hockey players who are faced with the task of balancing top flight hockey and their scholastic responsibilities. As junior leagues around the country begin to get more competitive, top tier athletes are forced to put their priorities in order. Some young players may feel that athletics should take the most amount of their time, but I spoke to two former junior hockey players who agree that this is wrong.
Dan Kaplan played for the New York Apple Core Junior B premier team for a year while attending Lynbrook High School on Long Island. Despite spending up to two hours a day on the ice practicing during the school year, Kaplan always made sure that school came first. "I always put academics in front of hockey," Kaplan says, now a freshman at Widener University. "I knew my grades were going to take me farther than hockey ever would, so I made them my top priority. I would study on bus rides, rides to and from practice - whatever I had to do to make sure my grades weren't brought down by hockey." Kaplan finished high school with a 3.0 GPA and committed to Widener where he currently plays lacrosse.
Juggling the pressures of a junior hockey club and academics is tough for players around the country. It is not unusual for a junior hockey player to spend as many as three or four hours a day working on their hockey skills. Combined with an eight hour school day, players are left with only one or two hours to work on academics outside of school. Sometimes that is not enough, and athletes are left to make up the slack on their own time.
Billy Latta, who just completed his freshman year at University of Connecticut, says that playing in an upper level hockey league while attending high school made him develop multitasking skills. "I never wanted to let hockey affect my grades, so I always had to try to keep the two in check. Playing for a D-I squad means a lot of commitment, and having to balance grades and hockey in high school taught me how to balance them now."
Latta played for the Philadelphia Jr. Flyers and his high school team, leading the former to a state championship in 2007. He was a member of the National Honor Society in high school and continues to impress both academically and on the ice at the collegiate level.
"I always tried to make the two thing work together, like ying and yang. If I had a rough day on the ice, I would study for hours to try and take my mind off of it. If I got a bad test grade, I would push myself harder on the ice to make up for it. Little things like that help go a long way." Latta now plays for one of the biggest hockey programs at the collegiate level. He says that had he not learned how to balance academics and sports at the junior level, he would have been swamped in college.
Kaplan, who no longer plays hockey, said something similar. "The biggest thing I learned playing juniors was responsibility. I had to be response for my actions on and off the ice. Part of that is being responsible for my grades. I couldn't use hockey as an excuse for my academics. I had to be responsible enough to perform well at both."
The battle between academics and athletics has been raging for decades now, and it seems like it will continue on for decades to come. Players who dream big might see their future lacking education, but these days it is important for a elite athletic to be book smart in addition to ice smart. As more pressure is put on top tier athletes both on the ice and in the classroom, it is important to tell athletes that good grades are just as impressive as fabulous goals.
Derek Smith is a currently a junior English/Creative Writing major at Widener University and has joined the staff of AmericanJuniorHockey.com as an intern feature writer.