Hockey Player  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotThose in the know say there's no game like it. Hockey is a fast-paced sport where only the strongest and most gifted players can lay claim to true star status. This is the game of the Wayne Gretzkys and Mario Lemieuxs.

dotHockey players have to be spectacular skaters, plus have all the other sport-specific skills required by the game, like stick handling. Players also have to know all the rules of the game.

dotIt's a long haul to the professional leagues. By the time most hockey players are in high school, they already have a decade of skating behind them. They probably started out around age four or five, with mom or dad pushing and cajoling them around a cold ice rink.

Players have to work through the ranks before they can turn pro. This means playing in bantam leagues until about age 14. That's when players are eligible to be drafted into a junior team. There are junior leagues all across North America. Players will be on a junior team while finishing high school. If the player goes on to university, they may play in varsity hockey leagues.

If a player is lucky in the junior leagues, they'll be scouted and drafted by a professional team and then finally get to turn pro. The pro leagues include the NHL (National Hockey League) and the AHL (American Hockey League).

dotAt the junior level, hockey players have to be great at both the game and at school. Gavin Hamilton is the director of sales and marketing for the Kelowna Rockets, which is a Western Hockey League team. The kids he sees on the ice excel not only at the game, but at academics as well. In other words, they're disciplined students in all aspects of their lives.

"To get to our level, they have to be very disciplined and have excellent time management skills," says Hamilton. "They need time for school, practice, games, homework, family. Social life is number five on the list."

dotMany of the junior leagues are willing to accommodate students so they don't have to move too far from home.

dotThe path into the NHL varies in Canada and the United States, although players from either country can enter whichever system they choose -- or more precisely, whichever system chooses them first.

dotThe world's largest hockey league is the Canadian Hockey League. The teams are located in Canada and the U.S.

All Canadian Hockey League players are between the ages of 16 and 20. They are required to finish high school during that time, and for every year that they play with a team they receive tuition towards college.

"If they aren't passing [in school], they don't play," says Hamilton. "And if you miss a class you don't play. That means if you return from a game at 5 a.m., expect to be in class at 8 a.m."

dotInjuries are possible in this career path. If a junior player suffers a career-ending injury, the league guarantees some years of schooling.

dotScouts for the pro leagues attend CHL games and other league games to keep an eye on who's hot. Once players turn 18, they're eligible to be drafted into the pro leagues. At that point, they would then spend another one to two years in the CHL or a similar league to hone their skills, or they could go to an international league. Entry into the NHL doesn't usually take place until age 21 or 22.

dotSome American players move to Canada to take advantage of the CHL system.

"That's the more successful way to advance, but it's not a common option," says Darryl Seibel, a spokesperson for USA Hockey. "It's a very well-established system that develops the players and prepares them for hockey." The downside is that students who choose that route forfeit their right to have their college education paid for.

dotThe more common route is to prepare someone in high school to go on to play college-level hockey. A good high school program will provide between 25 and 35 games per year. Some students may prefer more games, so they will enter the U.S. junior system, which offers a higher game schedule of 50 to 60 games per year.

dotAcross the country there are more than 30 varsity teams, all of them quite well established. Among these are Boston University, the University of Michigan and Colorado University.

Seibel says no one route is guaranteed to lead to the NHL. "It's a matter of what's right for the player."

dotFor women, pro hockey continues to seem out of reach. Yet women players are a lot closer than ever before to achieving professional status, says Kelly Connelly, an editor with Women's Hockey.

"Women's hockey is now an Olympic medal sport -- that's the pinnacle of achievement," says Connelly. She predicts that more women hockey players will be able to reap the benefits of that status when the sport takes off.

dotRegardless of what your goals are in hockey, there is one essential skill that must be mastered. "The most important thing is skating," says Rod Brind'Amour, an NHL player. "You should be able to go up in levels. But if [your skating] is not really strong, then you're not going to go far."

At a Glance

Play competitive hockey games

  • Many hockey players took to the ice as young as four or five years old
  • Earnings range widely in this sport
  • Players have to stay in school until they make it to the pro leagues


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