USA Hockey Tier III, Amateur Athletic Union, United States Premier Hockey League and others all have one thing in common, for the most part, the programs' existence is primarily funded by player participation fees. Players coming out of competitive travel programs generally don't bat an eye at the fees, and there seems to be a lot more roster spots than there are players to fill them.
In the past, many teams got away with treating players like property and made threats against the players' careers if the prospect even hinted that he would like to explore other options. Pay-to-play player agreements are written heavily in favor of the teams and leagues, leaving players with limited options.
Those days are over.
Junior hockey players have more options today than at any time in the history of the level of play. The term roster protection has taken the same path as employer funded retirement and the land line telephone.
Pay-to-play drafts, tenders, and protection of veteran players are relics of the past with players now having so many different options.
Pay-to-play programs need to get back to the basics of business operation and remember what it takes to be successful. Customer satisfaction has to be job one, two, three, and four. Coaches need to realize that the hold they once had on players is long gone.
Operators need to consider a volunteer reduction in the size of the rosters to deliver on the promise of playing time. An organization committed to a twenty man roster will be able to charge a premium if the phrase healthy scratch is eliminated from the equation.
The most important aspect of customer retention for junior operators is the delivery of promises. Exposure is easy and very inexpensive so teams recruit using that buzzword to entice players to their programs. The same teams often deliver exactly the opposite to keep player information from reaching the competition. That practice is simply bad business.
The very best way to retain customers is to over deliver on value and experience. It's not always about money, some folks buy Fords while others will only drive Mercedes. Junior hockey programs are better off giving these prospects a professional type of experience, and charging a premium, than they are cutting corners and short changing the players.
Some teams will get it, and make it a point to maximize the experience for their customers while others will continue to lose players mid-season to teams from leagues that operate outside of roster protection system.
Like any business, lost customers are a fact of life. For pay-to-play junior hockey, learning to treat players as a customer is going to be a major first step towards long-term success.