So your son has aspirations of being a professional hockey player one day.
He may barely be a teenager yet, but he has Major Junior League scouts looking.
Others are telling you that he should use his hockey talents to secure a scholarship in the United States to get an education first.
There are a lot of differing views, a lot of pressures, and ultimately decisions which have to be made which will impact his hockey development, education and possible career.
Nick Olynick, a goaltender from Canora, and his parents Ivan and Phyllis, faced the gauntlet when he was younger.
Looking back Nick said they didn’t always have the best information to make the best decisions.
“When I was a player, there wasn’t a handbook on where to play or what my options really were,” he said. “I had to research the academic requirements for NCAA (American college) and the fine print for the WHL (Western Hockey League).
“My parents had no clue how this stuff worked so I was an AA Bantam in Yorkton researching what it would be like to play in Portland (who owned my WHL rights at the time).
“Meanwhile, I had attended my first (Yorkton) Terrier camp as they were becoming a true contender and a couple of years later I watched guys from the Mallers head to the BCHL (British Columbia Hockey League) and have tremendous success.
“There was so many options and they all seemed so good, but it was only former players who could verify what actually was good and what seemed good on paper but had a lot of fine print with it. I was going off of here-say instead of research, experience and authority.”
Asked if parents are ready for the decisions they have to help with, Olynick said he doubted most are.
“Not really. I think most parents have a vague idea,” he said. “They know there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but they don’t know the day-to-day things their son will be doing to get to it and what that ride across the rainbow will be like.
“It’s like they’ll drop him into Junior and hope free school or pro opportunities will somehow appear if he just works hard. That’s only half the equation.
“The league, team and coach that your son plays for can dictate just as much of his future as will his work ethic. Many players are willing to work hard, but not every player plays in the right spot at the right time. Any route can work if you skew the odds in your favour.”
Olynick is hoping a new book he has written will act as a sort of map through the maze of decisions for younger players and their parents.
“The idea for this book has been rattling around in my head since I was a player,” he said. “My dad was the one who actually suggested I finally write it. He seems to run into people every so often who have kids coming into Junior (hockey), and they ask him questions all of the time. It’s the same questions I used to have. Now I’m far enough removed from playing that I can actually write it.”
But is information so hard to find these days in the era of the Internet?
“You’re right,” said Olynick. “I think it’s a different time than the ‘50s when some scout from out East would come sign a kid when he’s 14. There is a ton of info on the Internet.
“However, the problem I hear from many parents is that they can’t disseminate all this info. I call my book the Junior Hockey Truth because I’m not just telling parents what happens in junior hockey with scholarships, billeting, trades, coaches, all of that, but I’m also doing it unbiased.
“Any time a player talks to a coach or recruiter, or reads their website, they’re going to hear how great a league is and how great it would be to play there.
“The fact is that major junior and Junior A are both great routes, but each comes with little kinks around how much education is guaranteed, if any. It’s tough for parents to find players experiences or references when all they can read is from the teams trying to recruit their sons. I’m unbiased, I’ve played in all scenarios and I’m not affiliated with any team, league and I’m not an agent collecting a fee.”
Olynick said the first thing parents need to recognize is that the overtures start when players are young.
“It’s kind of funny. The best players have little input because they’re snatched up by the WHL right away, but if that’s the case they’ll likely get a lot of school, have an agent and probably have a good shot at making it,” he said.
“The fringe guys who struggle to make their respective league also have it tough because they are often going to the team that will take them. Then you have the ‘inbetweeners’ like I was. This is the vast majority of players. These guys get bounced around, so when they come back to Junior A from Major Junior, or if they are hot prospects out of Midget AAA who want to go NCAA, they can choose where to go and where to try out.”
That said Olynick said not all hockey leagues, even of the same level, are created equal.
“Junior A varies greatly across the country as far as scholarships and the quality of play and most people don’t realize the options outside of home or what even differs from team to team in their league if they do their research. Some leagues get every second player a scholarship, others get less than a handful of Division I (US) scholarships and those are real scholarships.”
Olynick said he tries to clear the water just a bit for parents.
“With that, a major part of my book is just educating parents where they are sending their son,” he said. “I moved out of home at 16. My parents were praying that I’d keep up with high school, not get into trouble, etc. They also wanted to know where I’d be staying on the road and where Junior could actually take me. I go into that as well.
“There are also general interest sections like why their son may get dragged into a fight on the ice, or what it’s like to be on a TV broadcast, get traded, etc.
“You can’t find that info on a league website. The book is really the complete answer to every type of question a player with a son on any junior team would ask.”
Olynick said that it’s important to remember decisions made affect far more than a player’s development on the ice.
“Looking back, Junior hockey wasn’t just about hockey,” he said. “It was a vehicle to make me into a man and to give me an outlook on life the typical teenager doesn’t get. It’s shaped my life now and will in the future.
“Parents shouldn’t chance something that golden.”
In that regard Olynick said parents need to understand hockey for young players can be tightly tied to their educational opportunities.
“The biggest thing players and parents must know is how their son banks away or bets on his education through hockey,” he said. “Major Junior teams give you a year of school anywhere in Canada, whether you continue to play hockey or not, for each year you play and that’s in the bank.
“However, you’re betting on playing enough years for a degree and few players do that. NCAA Division I teams re-sign you to a scholarship each year, so it’s not as common as it seems that players get a ‘full-ride’ scholarship and many end up paying expensive America tuition.
“Division III doesn’t really have scholarships, but the Junior leagues pretend they are legitimate scholarships and tout them as such. In reality, Div III just gives financial aid and there are few pro opportunities from it.”
And then there is the National Hockey League, or at least dreams of the big league, to factor into the equation.
“The other big thing to realize is that players/parents need to decide on a route to go down by the start of the 17 year-old year at the latest because that the NHL draft year,” offered Olynick. “If he doesn’t make the WHL by 17, or doesn’t want to go that route, he should start doing his research on Junior A clubs/leagues to not only find a spot, but one that consistently gets players scholarships, but also one that treats players well.
“With that, definitely do your research on all of the Canadian Junior A leagues because at 18 you can go anywhere. The league your son plays in makes a huge difference – I give a breakdown of the opportunities in my book.
“Scouts who find a Junior A organization, and coach with connections and a track record, that consistently produces recruits will keep returning to that because it’s most likely that Junior club knows how to develop winners.”
And there are pitfalls along the way on any course chosen, said Olynick.
“I think a pitfall players have is not realizing which training camp to attend,” he said. “Many players and parents don’t realize that half of the spots for a team are guaranteed in the spring and summer. That guy you’re facing off against in the first scrimmage is already living in a billet house and enrolled in school. It’s just a couple of fringe guys who are vying for spots, but players who have a legitimate shot at a team have probably talked to the coach before.
“I give tips in my book for how to tell what teams are seriously interested in their sons and which just want to fill another training camp spot.”
Olynick said in his case he made choices in his career, not all good ones, nor bad.
“To be honest, my parents were completely hands off with my career, for better and for worse,” he said. “I did the deciding myself, but I didn’t have anybody to help me. Thankfully, they supported my decisions.
“At the same time though, that is why my dad encouraged me to write the book so much. I was a 14 year-old kid making decisions that would affect me when I would be 24, and being a hockey parent didn’t come with a handbook. My parents just didn’t know how all of these routes and education packages worked, but everybody they met had bits and pieces of conflicting advice.”
Olynick hopes his book will help.
“I think a book like I’ve written would have had them better prepared for my Junior hockey decisions, or at least they wouldn’t have been shocked by the first trade, moving away from home at 16, and all of that,” he said. “I would have known how to handle the curve balls better. If I had to do it again, I would have done the same things I prescribe in my book, I just would have done them a whole lot smarter and probably would have found more success because of it, I feel.”