It happens all the time in almost every sport, a player dominates at the high school or youth levels of play but can't find the same success in junior hockey.
If it was that easy, everybody would be doing it.
The fact is that the junior level of play is full of midget and high school heroes. Heck, it might even be a requirement.
Sports are full of would be prodigies that simply never lived up to expectations. How many high school heroes do we remember that never materialized into the professional athlete we knew he would be? For every National Hockey League player there are thousands of others that came up short.
Unfortunately, the pay-to-play level of junior hockey is over-saturated with opportunities. If a player has the wallet to back him up, there is a roster spot available. That in itself is a tragedy because the system is not filtering out substandard players. We all have seen too many Happy Gilmors taking up valuable ice time.
Players also have to prepare for the differences between high school or midget hockey and junior hockey. Aside from the obvious age differences, there are also maturity and physical concerns. Is the prospect physically prepared for the drawn out battle that is a complete junior season? Is he socially responsible enough to balance athletic development with local notoriety? Is he mature enough to lead his own skill development or is junior hockey just going to be all about the party?
The Tier III level of play should be a place where young prospects can transition from youth to free-to-play junior hockey. The problem is the egos of coaches that can't see outside the tunnel of their own vision.
So what is the solution? To maximize the developmental opportunity, prospects should take a serious look at the team itself and the league they are in. If the level of play is balanced and competitive, there is a solid chance of improvement.
The Eastern Hockey League has transitioned into becoming a great feeder league for NCAA Division III schools based along the Atlantic region. That was a very smart move on their part as the model allows them to take the 20 year old player that is content with the NCAA Division III destination.
Maybe it is time for the North American 3 Hockey League to go into a different direction and give first and second year players the best opportunity to prepare for the rigors of junior hockey. A hybrid program that offers the training and game schedule of junior hockey without the social imbalances of having younger prospects forced to play with and against twenty year-old men.
The absolute elimination of 20 year-old players, and even limitation of 19 year-olds, will be the move that can transition the league to being a true developer for the tier II level of play.
The numbers don't lie. There are far more 16 and 17 year-olds out there than left over 20s. The biggest factor will be the peace of mind parents will have if they know there will not be any 20 year-old never-will-be's to pick on their young prodigies. A heavier emphasis on first and second year eligible players will be exactly what separates the NA3HL from the non-sanctioned tuition-based leagues.
Some will say that such a change would be detrimental to the North American Prospects League's 18u level and maybe they would be right. The league needs to ask themselves a serious question; is that 18U group really playing at a level the properly prepares players for the tier II league? Not really because most of the best players have already moved up. The NAPHL should let this season be the swan song of 18U and maybe replace them with 14U.
This change would give the NA3HL a deeper talent pool to draw from while giving the brand a stronger ladder of developmental.
A bold move? Absolutely. But it's also a necessary one if the league wants to carve out a new niche in an over-saturated, and unrestricted, market.
The move would also solidify the United States Premier Hockey League's Premier and Elite level as really Junior C, and D, at best.
The biggest obstacle to the concept are the affiliates and Tier I operators. Whether the NAPHL 18U exists or not, the elimination isn’t going to be the catalyst for big change for everyone else.
The affiliates and Tier I programs want to keep their 18Us playing midget regardless of whether doing so has a negative impact on the players' development. It’s also why the affiliates allow monopolies in the Tier I space. They are in cahoots on this.
The affiliates would certainly protest the NA's move and want to put up a fight, that goes without saying. It's my feelings that the NA brand is strong enough to force prospects into brand loyalty. Doing so will also provide the NA3HL with a proven track to the NAHL and other free-to-play leagues.
Limiting the NAHL draft to players from the NA3HL would create a tremendous tidal wave of protests from the establishment. That's a smart move considering that higher end prospects from outside the NA3HL can still be tendered before the draft. All others will be forced to go through the open camps to win an NAHL opportunity.
The NA3HL draft should also be limited to first year eligible players only. The NAHL should draft players one year older. This will create an even greater degree of brand loyalty from prospects at a younger age while leaving passed over players for the other leagues. NAHL drafted players could be placed with NA3HL teams for further development if they are not ready. Maybe limiting NAHL rosters to twenty players with up to ten affiliate players on various NA3HL rosters.
The conversation with the United States Hockey League, in regards to going into the same direction as the NAHL, is certainly possible with longtime NAHL employee Denny Scanlon now serving as the tier I league's Deputy Commissioner.
The leagues operating outside the jurisdiction of USA Hockey are going to do what they are going to do. Our concept puts the power back into the hands of the NAHL, and possibly the USHL as well. Doing so also gives the NA3HL a solid future to look forward to.
Something has to change and there has to be a real advantage in staying under the umbrella of USA Hockey. No change will force many existing NA3HL operators into reconsidering moving forward at all.