Returning to U-18: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

A return to the U-18 ranks can be heartbreaking. A return to the U-18 ranks could be the best decision ever. A return to the U-18 ranks could mean a loss year of development.

There’s a lot of good, bad and ugly stories when it comes to returning to U-18, but could the bad and ugly stories be avoided?

Why are drafted players not developing?

Why are they hitting a wall in their developmental progression?

The Hangover: The Good

Hangovers are never a good thing, but they do serve there purpose sometimes.

You can see a hangover coming as plain as day. A matter of fact you can almost guarantee it will happen. 99.9 percent of players that are released from QMJHL come back to the U-18 ranks with a hangover. You could say the same thing for highly touted NHL draft selections when they come back to junior.

The return to the lower ranks hangover is a natural phenomenal. Some young players return with something to prove while other linger in the hangover for quite some time.

We all know why it happens, but it’s the “how” that should be the most concerning.

Who should be responsible for picking up the players confidence, swagger and hockey playing psyche?

Well, the first answer to that question is easy, the player, right? Well it isn’t that simple. For most players that’s the first time they have ever been cut in their lives. In their minds the dream to play in the QMJHL is gone before they know it, taken away from them. For many players the release seems like punishment, not an opportunity.

Shouldn’t the QMJHL team that released the player be responsible for checking in and monitoring the develop and growth of the player?

Let’s be honest that doesn’t always happen due in large part to logistics and just the regular grind of the season. Time and resources play a massive role in player development from that stand point and QMJHL organizations try to do a good job, but some prospects slip through the cracks when it comes to improving and developing their game.

Obviously, the U-18 AAA coaching staff should be in charge of lifting the player up and continuing to develop the player for the next opportunity at the next level. Clearly that’s their job isn’t it?

Is U-18 hockey all about development or winning? Sadly, more and more players that are on the cusp of the QMJHL are returned to the U-18 ranks with no clear objective or plan in place.

Sure, they are paid lip service with regards to the organizations intentions and the future, but often times there’s nothing concrete set in place to ensure the player continues to improve and grow. That’s potentially the ugliest part of all of this. The player returns hoping they can get back there in the second half of the season or the following season, but they don’t know how to or they haven’t been told how to accomplish it. The player and their family are left in the dark. From a U-18 coaching perspective, winning and doing what’s best for the next crop of prospects or “the team” comes well ahead of continuing to develop “the returning player”

Out of all this confusion, adversity and controversy comes triumphant. What if the “returnee” experiences the complete opposite to what is outlined above. The lines of communication are open, everyone involved has the best interest of the player in mind upon the return and then at 17 years old, they are ready to rock and roll at the next level, isn’t that the real meaning of player development?

Rounding Out Their Game: The Bad

The primary focus of any player returning to the lower ranks should be to get better. How the hell do you do that when it seems like no one is telling you how?

Clearly getting better should be the focus, but in many ways it’s all about rounding out their game.

Obviously, the player wouldn’t have gotten drafted if they didn’t possess the intangibles it potentially takes to play at the next level, so in many ways it’s all about refining those assets and continuing to build on their strengths while targeting their weaknesses. “Rounding out” a players their game poses a massive problem, not because it’s impossible, because of all the bad/brutal habits the player develops. Cheating on the offensive side of the puck, going half assed in practice and games for that matter, flipping the switch whenever they want. You would be surprised, but that shit happens at an alarming rate.

The returning player is called upon to score more or have a larger presence in the offensive end rather than working on all aspects of their game, which is required from them and of them at the next level. You can sit there and deny that you have to be a reliable two-way player at the next level or you can just go out and put the freaking work in to accomplishing it.

Returning players are always told they have to go down and be this or that. Why can’t players be told, “go play the game the right way and this is what we want you to do.”

Just Not Good Enough: The Ugly

There comes a time where a player and their family realize that they might just not be good enough to play at the next level. It doesn’t mean they will never get there or take a different path in the game, it just means that the CHL route isn’t for them right now.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen players that are good enough to play in the Q not crack a QMJHL roster because of some shortcomings when it comes to their overall development and progression in the game. On most occasions those players did in fact come back to the U-18 ranks, but they didn’t improve, they never got better, it wasn’t from lack of work ethic or drive, but it’s the way that they worked, the way that they were coached. This isn’t about blaming anyone, this is all about laying it out there so the next crop of young players that get sent down understands what they should work on. Some would say it’s about the player, it’s all on the player’s mindset, but everyone involved has a role to play in this. You see that’s where everyone jumps to conclusions and just says “oh they weren’t good enough to play.” Well, that’s true in some cases, but so wrong in others.

What about right place, right time? What about opportunity?

Again, it all goes back to what the player did after they were drafted, the coaching they received, the intangibles they possess and the steps they took to improve so when the next opportunity arose, they would be ready for it.

Every player has a ceiling, it’s the players that haven’t been told what to do to reach theirs is truly the saddest.

You see that’s the ugliest of the ugliest when it comes to the returning player.

It’s like they didn’t have a hope in hell. They had all the tools, but they were never refined, the player never learned how to round out their game, they never told or taught how to play a full 200ft game.

Now that is just downright ugly.

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