Most hockey fans have heard of junior hockey, but don’t necessarily know what it’s all about.
I asked three anonymous sources (whose names have been changed for the purposes of this piece) for some details about juniors, mostly out of curiosity, as I, along with others, don’t fully understand what junior life is truly like. Colin plays in the British Columbia Hockey League, Ben played in the United States Hockey League but is now playing in the United States Premier Hockey League after an injury, and Murph, who was more reluctant to talk, currently plays in the USHL. They all are committed to Division I schools.
Those who have already signed an offer sheet and committed to play at a Division I college do not necessarily look forward to playing juniors. “Initially I wanted to avoid playing juniors at all costs and even considered giving up on Division I hockey,” Colin explained. “I would have liked to go straight to school, but ultimately it is your future coaches who decide what the best path to take is.”
Ben wasn’t as adamant against juniors. He saw its upside, as he “didn’t believe he was quite ready to become an impact player in college coming straight out of prep school.” He wanted the “extra experience” juniors would provide before making the jump to Division I.
It’s important to note that a good chunk of junior players have yet to receive offers from colleges and spend years in various leagues seeking them. The point is, juniors isn’t something everyone looks forward to, but a somewhat unfortunate step in what has become a pretty standard path for college hockey players.
What’s your typical day like?
Murph outlined a typical day in the USHL: “I wake up around 10 a.m., grab a Cliff Bar or make eggs. I leave the house around 10:15 and arrive at the rink at 10:45. I change from street clothes into warm up gear, tape my stick, play sewer*, talk to the boys. There’s an 11:15 meeting and film at 11:30. We warm up, then we get dressed, and we’re on the ice at 12-12:15. Practice ends at 1:30. I rush off, shower, put on workout clothes, and workout from 1:45 to 2:45. The boys then all go to local places to eat. I get home around 4 and try to take a nap or just head right to the Xbox or Netflix and play or watch until dinner. I eat with my billet family and then go back to Xbox or Netflix. I usually fall asleep around 1 or 2.”
*Sewer is the name of a game involving juggling a soccer ball in a circle.
Ben recalled from his days in the USHL, “For home games, there is usually a pregame skate around 10am. After that I’d go pick up mac-n-cheese at Noodles & Company—my ideal pregame meal—and then relax at home until I head to the rink…for a 7 p.m. game.”
Colin said the experience in the Great White North wasn’t much different: “On game days the schedule varies depending on whether or not we had a game the day before and if it’s a home or away game coming up. We will have a morning skate or just a morning meeting at 10:30 and then, if it is a home game, we’ll have to be back at the rink two hours before gametime. During that time I have lunch, take a nap and shower before heading to my game. I have a PB&J before every game too.”
Gathering from what these guys have to say, juniors isn’t so different from professional hockey in that the players really do have one job—to perform on the ice. Yes, they keep their amateur status, at least in these leagues, but six out of seven days are dedicated to the team. Some of these guys are sixteen. It’s definitely a unique teenage experience.
What do you do on off days?
On off days, which are only Sundays, Ben explained that he’d “typically lay low and rest after a long week of hockey.” Although “on the days we didn’t feel like relaxing we’d go to the local mall or University to cause some sort of ‘harmless’ disturbance.” In Canada, “…a couple of the guys…will take trips to Vancouver,” Colin said. “One big plus about being away from home is enjoying a new part of the world.”
I asked more specifically about the hockey-related culture in their respective areas.
Are you pampered?
“Unfortunately not all teams in the USHL are wealthy,” Ben noted. “A lot of times they’ll try and put you in used gear before ordering the new stuff. When it comes to sticks, we’d have to break them completely in order to get new ones [even if] the blade is soft and shot. So we would just take a nice swing over the crossbar and make them unusable…don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of teams in the league that pamper their players, I was just not on one.”
Are you a local celebrity?
“In the community, you are definitely a celebrity,” Colin said. “At home we get 2500-3000 fans a game….it’s not a big town and the team is the main attraction. We do a lot of community service through the organization and wear our jerseys when we do it so even if people haven’t come to our games they still know us from the community.”
Ben agreed. “In a sense I did feel like a local celebrity. That feeling came from the excitement on people’s faces as they received an autograph or took a picture with one of us. Also…when we auctioned off our jerseys people were spending on average $300.”
What’s your living situation like?
Colin seemed happy with his housing and billet family. “I am the only player billeting in my house. I have a great family with two boys who are 8 and 10 and both play hockey. I have an entire basement apartment to myself and eat meals with the family upstairs, and I’m very close to them.”
Murph didn’t provide a direct quote on his situation, but he didn’t seem as content. He’s living in an attic with two teammates, which he likes, as he has his own space, but his billet family lives about thirty minutes from his home rink and he noted that he doesn’t always get the quality of food he’s used to at home. It’s kind of the luck of the draw when it comes to housing, so it seems.
What’s the drinking culture like?
Colin and Ben both shared a similar sentiment. “It’s not what people think, at least in my case,” Ben said. “Some of the guys would chill and have a couple beers on the weekend but nobody really drank like crazy.” Colin’s coach is “fairly strict on drinking for a juniors coach. He has no issue with it, but we aren’t allowed to have a party unless we have a good weekend of games.”
Both of them noted that there are some teams that drink more heavily than others, depending on coaching policies, and it’s important to remember the difference in drinking ages between countries.
Do you feel pressure from fans, coaches, or family?
Ben: “There is tons of pressure put on players in the USHL. With the caliber of players…everyone is trying to prove they are better than the guy next to them…anyone can take anyone’s job on any given day…A few bad nights and I could be taken off the power play, put in the stands, or even traded. I had to turn that pressure into more of a motivation and less of a fear.”
Colin almost completely disagreed. “No, my parents support me through all my challenges, the fans don’t have any effect on a player’s’ performance. The coaches and yourself are the two places pressure comes from. You control how you play and your coaches determine if you are playing to their standards.”
Ben added that his least favorite thing about juniors is “that not all the players have the same goal in mind. A lot of players just want to use the league to prepare for college and if they aren’t already committed, get noticed by a school. There is more of an individual mentality than a team mentality in juniors.”
As I mentioned above, Ben injured his shoulder, forcing him out of the USHL and into the USPHL in his final year of juniors before he goes off to a Hockey East school next year. I asked him to share his emotions upon realizing he needed surgery:
“I was very upset, mostly because I was not going to be able to play hockey for at least six months…There is so much frustration when it comes to having surgery. There is a sense of helplessness and I felt as if I was just falling behind all my competition…My mentality has..changed…I am grateful that I had the surgery done now and I am going to be healthy for the start of my college season…Rehabbing has been one of the toughest experiences not only physically but mentally as well.”
Hockey and baseball have the most comparable paths to the majors. Teams draft the right to sign players, just like any other league, but they rarely sign draftees immediately after selecting them. Only the McDavids, Eichels, and Crosbys are seen in the NHL the year after they get picked. This structure creates a longer road to the pros. Hockey is really the only major team sport where a good chunk of players forego a high school education or postpone college because they feel that doing so gives them the best shot at success. It doesn’t necessarily seem like a personal preference but a product of a potentially flawed system.
I’ve heard some guys recommend juniors highly even if they’re not committed to a college, claiming that it’s an opportunity to extend the time you can play the game you love competitively before you transition into beer leagues. But there are plenty of Division I caliber players who would rather go straight to college after high school. They don’t really have a choice, as seeing an eighteen-year-old freshman playing top-tier NCAA hockey is almost as rare as seeing an eighteen-year-old in the NHL. The average age of college hockey freshmen is 20 years old.
In short, the “junior hockey experience” doesn’t seem unanimous at all, but it’s interesting to hear what players have to say about it. It’s intense, regimented, and certainly unique. Hockey fans hear the word juniors thrown around a lot, especially by Pierre McGuire, but the details of juniors are a mystery to most. Not everyone’s a fan, but those against juniors don’t really have much of a choice.