The International Junior Hockey League(IJHL) may have "hockey" in its name but "it's really about helping (our young players) get a better education," the League commissioner says. "That's the first thing, not getting into the National Hockey League(NHL). If they can make it to the NHL, well, that's all gravy," says Charlie Nielsen.
Nielsen is determined to make the League "stronger and better" and to do so, he says, "we opened up the international end of it. We have quite a few players now who are Russians, Finns, Swedes, and Czechs, and a lot of them are going to school" (as a result of an unlimited import rule.) Most of them are stand-out competitors and, Nielsen says, he's delighted to have them because, "If you don't play against the best, you won't be the best."
Nielsen was interviewed by Professor Diane Sullivan of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover for the broadcast "Educational Forum" to be aired at 11 A.M. Eastern Time Sunday, October 31 on Comcast Sports Network and seen nationally. Asked how many players go through juniors hockey and continue on into the pros, Nielsen replied, "I can tell you my own personal experience is that in 35 years of doing this with my own program there have only been seven or eight players that made it. I have been in leagues that sent a lot of people to the pros. I got a lot of people who played in the American Hockey League or the East Coast Hockey League. But the education is our focus, (otherwise) when you're all done playing hockey all you got left is a beer league or something like that."At one junior team, the Boston Blackhawks, Nielsen said 22 of the 25 players on its roster are going on to college.
Asked if he was concerned about his young players getting injured on the ice, Nielsen replied, "It's a tough, fast sport and they hit hard and you're going to have injuries. Is it a concern? Yes. We make all our teams have an emergency trainer on hand at every game just in case there is an injury, so you've got a first responder who's got some medical experience." Additionally, some teams have an EMT and a doctor standing by. Players, he says, "get hurt, but no more than any other sport." Asked about his league's position on fighting, Nielsen replied, "It's a no-fight league. The first fight a player gets into results in a game suspension; the second fight he get suspended for three games; and if you have a third fight you've got to come see me and that's not very pleasant."
Junior hockey is a catch-all term used to describe various levels of amateur ice hockey competition for players generally between 16 and 20 years of age, Wikipedia says. The IJHL was launched in 2005 after eight years of prior evolution as the Interstate Junior Hockey League. Its Super Elite Division has swelled to 12 member teams, half in the New England division and half in the Mid Atlantic division. One advantage of its structure is that IJHL can conduct its Nationals without the monumental costs of having to travel to far-off venues, according to its website. The proximity of the competitors also enables players to get more rest. Besides the Boston Junior Blackhawks, IJHL teams in the Super Elite division are the Cape Cod Cubs, Eastern Kodiaks, Massachusetts Maple Leafs, and Mariners. Teams in the Mid Atlantic division are the Trenton Habs, South Jersey Raptors, Philadelphia Jackals, Long Island Wolfpack, East Coast Generals, and New Jersey Storm.
High school hockey has become a feeder into Junior Hockey and Junior Hockey into Division One or club hockey, so it's become very competitive that way, one hockey dad interviewed for the broadcast observed. He notes that Division One hockey needs only about 400 kids every year to replenish and, of these, only 150 to 200 of those kids will make it into Division One, where teams have rosters of 28 or 29 players. "So it's a very narrow pyramid at the top and a lot of good hockey plays don't make Division One. As Division One feeds pro hockey, it's very competitive."
Derek Nutter, a full-time student at Fitchburg State College, Massachusetts, who plays for the New England Stars, says "I think most people's goal for junior hockey is to move on to college, and play at a higher level. And that's obviously my goal." Asked if his coach pushes him hard, Nutter replied, "He works us pretty tough. I'm usually wiped (after) a long day." Their coach has a sign that says "Will Beats Skill." Nutter says, "I've been playing hockey all my life, and I've been skating since I was three in backyard rinks and I can't really see my life without hockey. Just to be able to come play at this high level is a great opportunity for me to get better and hopefully to move on."
The youths who get into Junior Hockey are screened as intensively as major league scouts screen baseball prospects, if not more so. Dan Fontas, head coach of the New England Stars hockey team, says, "One of the first things that jumps out is skating ability. If you can't really skate at a good level, it's hard to compete. But it all depends what you're looking for as a team. If you lose two of your leading scorers, you're looking for more of a finesse player." He says he also looks for what he terms "ice presence" as well as attitude. "When I make recruiting calls to the high school and junior league coaches, the first question I always ask is, 'What kind of person is he?' 'What kind of kid is he?' Because there are so many players out there and if he's got a bad attitude, if he shows up late once a week, we're just not going to waste our time on him because there's another kid out there who's got a great attitude and is very coachable who would love to be in his position. And every other college coach I know is the same way because they don't want their team to be disrupted by something negative."
" As we recruit kids," Fontas says, "We go and watch games to assess their skill set if they're playing in high school or prep school. I'll have individual meetings with kids, I'll talk to them on the phone for an hour or so just to really get to know them because it's important. I'm a coach and it's very easy for me to draw up the Xs and Os, but these kids also have to hang their skates up one day, and I really want to help develop their life skills and make sure that when that day comes they've learned something from me personally that they can remember about what can be strong for them at that point." Fontas goes on to say, "The very easy part for me and for my coaching staff is the on-ice stuff. It comes very natural to us. We have a lot of very good coaches that are involved with our team, who have played Division One professional hockey and that have coached in the collegiate Division One and Division Three level. So the on-ice stuff and developing them, getting them ready to understand what the Xs and Os need to be at the next level is very easy. The tough part is getting them to understand the commitment that they make. They're still young, they're 17-year-old kids and they truly don't know the dedication you need to have every day of what expectations are going to be."
Fontas says his roster consists of 22 skaters and three goaltenders. "About 15 kids are out of high school who are either taking part-time community classes and continuing their athletic ability as well and the rest of the kids are currently either in their senior or junior years of high school." Fontas stresses that "Every kid needs to be treated as an individual. I think I take an approach that there are 25 different personalities, and there are some kids I can relate to, that I can get into their face a little bit more, and there are some kids that need a little bit more of a pat on the back. It's my responsibility to find out what motivates these kids as an individual and then collectively that will help the team." Fontas says he holds individual meetings with his players three or four times a year. "And we're explaining to them, 'This is where you fit in right now,' 'this is where we see that you might be able to play at the collegiate level,' or 'If you're really passionate, you might need an extra year of development.'"
Fontas says his team practices four days a week and "We're on the ice for about an hour and 20 minutes per day during the season." Preseason, he says, "we have a conditioning camp that we do for a week before we start our normal practices. We're on the ice for a little bit longer than that. In addition to that, our players are required to work out at a local gym in the area two days a week. This is the first year that actually I've implemented our players to do spin class and Pilates and yoga class as well as the regular workout, so it's a demanding schedule. They're trying to balance their academics, they're trying to balance some part-time work as well, so the kids really need to utilize their time very well to give them the best opportunities. It's really, really important for them to have time management skills." Fontas says his team, the Yellow Jackets , will take seven trips this year that are spread out so they doesn't come all at once. "We do league showcases where we'll all go to a neutral site, and the teams will all travel there, and we'll play different teams there as well. So the travel isn't that bad. A couple weekends ago we had to travel up to Maine for the weekend, and two weeks before that we were in New Jersey. It's part of the experience as well as the college/professional level."
Fontas said many of his players who have to travel a considerable distance to be with the team are "really good kids." He says, "They really just took to each other this year. The chemistry in the locker room and on the ice (is there) and they enjoy showing up to the rink every day. And that passion is important because it's (the team) their family six days a week for seven months." He goes on to say, "If a kid is late for practice (without) a good excuse, and it's Saturday morning and we're leaving to go to Maine and they're late for the bus, well that's shame on you. That's not accepted at the next level so I discipline them. I might bench them for a game or I might give them locker room duty for the week. If they're late because they say 'I had to finish up an exam,' there's days I'm pretty lenient about that."
Asked about players who want to compete a second year, Fontas said, "Number One, it depends on their age. We do have some high school kids that are juniors and my hope is they're going to be back with us next year because they can't go to college yet. I have some kids that are taking part-time classes at community college or local universities that might not be ready for college hockey yet, either at the Division One or Division Three level, so they might need another year. I have some kids that are ready, and my hope is that kids aren't going to put their life o hold because, again, they do need to hang up their skates one day and sometimes, as a coach, I can be the best person. But I can also be the worst person by being honest with kids. And I think it's important for me to have that integrity about our organization so that we do not mislead kids. Every kid's a little bit different in terms of 'you need another year because you're not age ready,' 'you need another year because you're not skill ready,' or 'You're ready, let's do it, whatever we need to do to get you the exposure and development to get you placed for next year. The average age for a freshman going into college for hockey is just under 21 years of age, so a college coach is looking for a mature, experienced hockey player."
Asked by host Diane Sullivan what it costs a kid to play hockey, Fontas responded, "There's bus travel, there's hotel (costs), so for our junior program the price roughly is around $7,000 for the year. We give them all the equipment (as part of our package) and that covers all the ice cost as well." Fontas says because it's "little money" the junior organization hockey "is not very profitable from a business standpoint. I do this because I love coaching hockey, and our organization runs our junior program because it helps supplement the income to the rink as well. To keep these lights on in the rink is very very expensive so it can definitely be challenging, but it's what we do."
Asked how hockey remains competitive with other sports, Fontas repled, "Probably the biggest reason is the love that the kids have for it. I run 17 teams altogether, including our junior program. We have a youth organization called the PHD Junior Elites, which I field six teams, and then I have half-season midget teams, kids preparing for their high school seasons. So the cost is something that's very tricky and it's been very challenging in this (hard) economic time because we're more of a want as opposed to a need, so some kids aren't able to do it as well right now. So it's really the passion that the kids have, I think, that will continue to drive hockey."
Asked about the impact of juniors hockey on high school and college programs, Fontas replied the impact on high school is that junior leagues have gotten "a lot bigger in terms of more teams." He says, "There's more leagues that are in the area now, so it has had an impact on high school hockey. ...You're always going to have your strong high school hockey players and your strong high school hockey organizations. Personally, I don't like to recruit a lot of high school players that aren't in a good high school organization."