Those 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.
Hockey 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.
It'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).
At 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."
Many of the junior leagues are willing to accommodate students so they
don't have to move too far from home.
The 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.
The 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."
Injuries are possible in this career path. If a junior player suffers a
career-ending injury, the league guarantees some years of schooling.
Scouts 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.
Some 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.
The 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.
Across 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."
For 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.
Regardless 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."