The Tryout Process: Volume:1 Scrimmage vs Practice: “Untouchable” Experiences

As competitive hockey tryouts start across the Maritimes some coaches are scrambling to find last minute drills and evaluation techniques to ensure they select the best players available for their hockey club.  

As coaches we have to have a plan of attack for the upcoming season, but setting the tone is critical when laying out the framework for training camp and beyond.  
In the past, I had the luxury of being an Asst. Coach for several hockey teams, which drastically reduces the pressure that comes with the selection process. 

As an Asst. Coach I was there to observe the entire process and my decisions were taken seriously, but the final decision on team personnel, rested solely on the Head Coach. I learn so much during that time especially from a drills and scrimmage perspective. In 2011, when I took over as the Head Coach of the Pee Wee AA team I really wanted to do something different and wanted to build unity with the tryout process instead of separation.

On three separate occasions during the tryout process that year I spoke to the players and reminded them that if they were to make the team what to expect and that if they were unsuccessful, not give up on the dream to play competitive hockey. I took the opportunity to discuss the way I felt when I was “cut” or “released” from a team and how I handled that as a player and person. I wanted the players to know that I was pulling for them and not just there to cut them and ruin their dreams.
It was quite emotional for me after the first round of cuts but the process would only get harder. I made some tough decisions especially on one player who would have fit in very with our hockey club but I personally thought that he would benefit more from being a #1 d-man with the “A” team rather than being #6 on our team. Now don’t get me wrong I chose the best available players and strictly made “hockey decisions” when selecting the final roster.

What to look for in a Scrimmage?
Through the final scrimmage scenario I identified specific line combinations and had my full roster set for practice the following week. During that time no personnel decisions were made all the tough decisions were discussed with my asst. coach and my handpicked evaluators previous to the Red vs. White game. I didn’t have a check list or subsequent evaluation sheet on each player. My observations of all the scrimmages were specific and concise. I would write down a few things if I wanted to key in on a certain player or sequence during the scrimmage.

As mentioned previously, I was also looking for line combinations and possible “d” pairings during the selection as well. In some strange way, in the back of mind I was building my team during this process and by putting certain players together gave me a better understanding of eventual personal and team chemistry.

I don’t want to come off sounding like a “hockey savant,” but evaluating players comes very easy to me. Nevertheless, I have been proven wrong on occasion when evaluating players, something that I’ve learned over the years of scouting as well. Looking back, I wasn’t allowed to practice with players during the evaluation process that year which is truly a setback.

Some associations take pride in the scrimmage model because they find it the most telling.   Unfortunately, I believe scrimmage scenarios reveal only a moderate evaluation of the player’s full potential.  If more minor hockey associations would allow their coaches to practice in the truest since of the word “training camp” they would see a drastic increase in performance and individual player development throughout their entire association.  It’s very difficult to see a player’s full skill set in a game scenario because some players are very good at compensating for their shortcomings or don’t always look good in that environment whether it be skating or pivoting.  For this reason alone some players get selected to a team based on their “game performance” which can be very misleading.   I have a great example of this. 

Several years ago, I wasn’t privy to the selection process for an Atom A Development team that I was the Asst. Coach for.  So I was shocked when I stepped on the ice for the first practice and witnessed,a young boy who had the worst skating technique that I’ve seen in quite some time.  I quickly approached my good friend and head coach and asked “who the hell is that kid”, he can’t skate, is he a project?  I was quickly told “You just watch and you will see”.  

Every drill, every 50/50 puck, every scenario this kid would be there first. 

He was the fastest on the team!  It reminds me of Sean Connery’s character on “The Untouchables”  “here endeth the lesson”. I learned a very valuable lesson that day that I hold very close to me as a coach.  Never judge a book by its cover when evaluating a hockey player at any level.
 It was that very moment that proved to me that when evaluating a player you have to see them in all scenarios and that you can’t underestimate the value of scrimmage and practices. 

If you were evaluating that player in a scrimmage you would discount him due to his skating technique and not look at his effectiveness.    

If you were only basing your decisions on practice then he would have stood out for sure due to his quickness alone.  As coaches we must insist to see players in both whelms to fully evaluate their potential to understand the game as well as play it.   That particular player subsequently didn’t make provincial teams in the years to come because some people misjudged his ability, determination and heart. 

Unfortunately as coaches, we sometimes can’t see the amount of heart a certain player has because so many of us are fixated on talent, skill and skating ability that we misjudge one of the most important factors when picking a team. 

I have mentioned this next player on countless occasions, but he fits this profile.  Here is a player that was labelled as having baggage as a 12 year old.  His passion and desire was has clear has his skating ability during the tryout process.  I couldn’t have lived with myself if I didn’t pick him that season.  

Based on his tryout he was in our top 12 and was more physical and determined than our top 6 at that time.  So the next time you walk into a rink during evaluation time be sure to observe the entire process and all the considerations that go into selecting a hockey club when judging the coaches or players.   As for coaches be considerate and honest during this process and never take for granted the importance of our role in these young hockey players lives.

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