USHL teams are composed mostly of returning
players and draft picks, but each team has a few new players that were
"training camp surprises." These players
are likened to NHLer's that were undrafted-those who battled their way up from
the lower leagues and earned a spot by impressing the coaching staff at
tryouts. It is hard to believe that star
players like Martin St. Louis, Pascal Dupuis, and Adam Oates never heard their
names called at an NHL Draft. The USHL
is a much smaller stage, but undrafted players travel a route similar to
undrafted professionals during the tryout process.
USHL tryout camps feature fitness testing, organized battle
drills, a series of timed scrimmages. As
a rule of thumb, all top prospects and current draft picks are automatically
invited to main camp. The remaining
spots at main camp are filled by players who impressed the coaching staff at
rookie camp (usually held in the days leading up to main camp), and also by
prospects acquired by the scouting staff.
Depending on the team, an uninvited player may have to start in rookie
camp if he wants a shot at main camp.
Others receive direct invites to main camp based on previous playing
history or recommendations from other coaches.
Junior hockey in the United States is a "small world"-scouts
and coaches from other leagues are in constant communication with one another
and have the ability to secure a slot for their players at USHL camps. My personal experience, for example, unfolded
through a network of coach and scout connections. I grew up in Montana, played Midget "AA" in
Colorado, and had aspirations of playing at the next level, but I was unsure
where to start with summer tryouts.
Luckily, my coach had made a connection-by chance-to the brother of a
new USHL coach. At the recommendation of
my midget coach, I received an invitation to the Indiana Ice's main camp. When I arrived in Indianapolis, I quickly
realized that I was in uncharted territory.
Many of the prospects already knew one another from "AAA" or other
junior leagues; needless to say, there was not a huge crowd from the Colorado "AA"
My midget coach had lectured me about playing "my game" at
camp, and sticking the fundamentals of playing defense (let's just say my
offensive game is still developing). As
camp progressed, I felt I had given a solid performance and I was rewarded by
being selected for the final game (the "All-Star" as it's called at most
camps). The two teams were composed
mainly of veteran returning players and current draft picks, but I noticed
there was also a mix of guys like me as well-unknowns from non-traditional
junior- feeder leagues. I knew my
chances were looking better at this point, and some of the team's loyal fans
tracked my down before the All-Star game at the rink and interrogated me as to
who I was and where I had come from-a reminder to me that I was unknown and not
originally expected to have a good chance of making the team. As it turned out, I was selected for the team,
but I was not the biggest training camp surprise. Nick Bailen, all of 5'9" (that's generous)
and 15 years-old at the time, also made the team as a defenseman. We bonded over our non-traditional
backgrounds and ended up sharing the better part of three seasons together in
Indianapolis. (Nick is currently
entering his senior season as a top player at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
in beautiful Troy, NY)
Looking back on three years in the USHL and three different
tryout camp experiences, I found that there were a new crop of "training camp
surprises" each year-both on my team and around the league. On many occasions I recall undrafted players
and players from other leagues coming into the USHL and making an immediate
impact in one way or another. At times,
I recall my teammates being shocked to learn that a previously unknown player
who was making a big splash around the league had come from a lower tier league
or an obscure state. It is true that many
of the USHL's star players were drafted or protected at some point, but
unfamiliar paths to the USHL, and beyond, do exist. As the 2012-13 season unfolds, watch for the
new crop of undrafted phenoms to rise; chances are good that the college scouts
will spot them before any of us do, but if you dig deeper into an undrafted
player's background, you may discover a storied path to the USHL.
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