Can you hear that high pitched noise coming from the backsides of a record number of pay-to-play coaches and operators? Its a unique tone that's only heard when the pressure to secure prospects exceeds the number of such recruits in the player pool.
The pitch is only going to get higher and will inevitably result in some type of anti-climactic puff. Oh well, that is a common problem that comes around every season.
As AAA and AA midget hockey continues to have a stronger hold on players age 16-18, and many college club teams recruiting prospects straight out of high school, pay-to-play operators find themselves in recruiting battles on two additional fronts. Lets not forget the 350+ other junior teams going after the same age group of players.
Now that it looks like the USA Central Hockey League is going to put four to six tuition free teams on the ice this fall, additional pressure will be placed on the pay-to-play programs. The USACHL is taking a step in the right direction with a firm stand on using only adult players, meaning players must be at least 18 years-old to play in the league. That's going to make it a big boy league playing with the National Hockey League rule book. Smart moves on both parts.
I'm afraid its going to take a catastrophic meltdown in order to see a real correction in the pay-to-play market. There are simply too many teams and too few players. As a result, the perceived developmental opportunity is heavily diluted with sub-standard levels of play for leagues that don't corrective action.
Whats the fix?
The best move for the pay-to-play level is to focus on younger prospects. For this upcoming season, players born 2000-2002 coming out of AA midget would be a safe bet. One of the issues that continue to keep young prospects from the junior level is the fact that so many teams remained focused on 20 year-old players. With 1998-2000 birth year players being allowed to play in Canada ( and the 18+ players in the USACHL), a refocus on younger prospects may be the very best way for leagues like the NA3HL and EHL to stay relative.
Players need to be very careful about payments to teams with questionable roster numbers. Operators that refuse to disclose the truth about the roster should not be trusted. Players need to be direct. How many players have signed agreements and paid deposits? If that number is less than 15, hold onto your cash and start looking for plans B, C, and D.
Players are now in the position of power and should seek guarantees of operational standards set for the level of play. This should include ice time, travel, meals and whatever else is supposed to be taken care of by the team. If the team is failing to meet its end of the agreement, players need to have some type of free release agreement worked out ahead of time. If an operator refuses, seek other opportunities.
Is this too hard of a stand? I don't think so and here is why.
I'm tired of hearing about teams that simply fail to live up to their end of the bargain and leave players trying to pick up the pieces. At the same time, players need to make sure they know exactly who they are dealing with.
History is an excellent indicator of how a team (and coach) operates. Talk to former players of both the team and coach. It is appropriate to ask coaches for a list of five current and former players that can be contacted as a reference. Once again, if such a list cant be produced, seek other opportunities.
Are we taking too strong of a stand? I dont think so. At $4,000-$10,000 a season or more, players should have the ability to shop for value and investigate teams in the same manner they would for any other large purchase.
Players need to be smart and protect the game for the guys coming up behind them. If something is not right, have the courage to speak up and make it right. Pay-to-play prospects ARE the customer.
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