Good evening/morning hockey fans–specifically youth hockey fans.  USA Hockey Nationals have wrapped up, the various Easter Weekend tournaments have crowned their champions, and now it’s time to rest, relax and regain your strength.

Wait a minute.  You mean you can’t rest, relax and regain your strength because tryout season has started?!  Alas, depending on which part of the country you live in — the chaos is dead, long live the chaos!

Here in Arizona, the various organizations cannot wait to get you onto their ice, perhaps get your money into their wallets, and get your child that all-so-valuable chance to play for their team!  Tier I tryouts are already wrapping up.  Tier II and non-Tier tryouts are only two weeks away!  Quick!  Get your wallet, check the websites, and register right away!  OR…hold on for a moment and read on…

The Tryout Glossary
Here are a few terms you will need to know and understand as you head into the tryout season.  Some of what I have to say may not be popular, but since when has that ever stopped me?

  • Tier I Hockey – This is what is known as “AAA” youth hockey.  Officially, USA Hockey only recognizes Tier I/AAA hockey at the 14u (formerly known as Bantam) level and above.  For the upcoming season, this would mean kids born in 2003 or 2004.  If your kid is a 10u (Squirt) player, teams can claim to be anything they please–but USA Hockey does not recognize Squirt AAA, or Peewee (12u) AAA, or MITE (8u) AAA.
  • Tier II Hockey – See Tier I hockey, except these are considered “AA” teams.  Take off a vowel, and expect to be considered the “second-best” teams in your state.  Again, no such thing as Tier II or “AA” prior to 14u hockey (2003 and 2004 birth years).
  • Non-Tier Hockey – These poor kids are doomed to only being “A” or “B” players–this season.  Technically, any 8u, 10u or 12u team is a non-Tier team.
  • High School Hockey – This is a tricky one.  What this means varies greatly depending on where you live.  In some regions, high school hockey is where most of the top high school-aged kids play.  In others, high school hockey is wedged in between Tier II and non-Tier hockey for 14-18 year olds.  In Arizona, at least, this is considerably more affordable hockey–usually less than $2,000 per season on a standard high school team.  Competition varies depending on what level team you’re on.  A JV or D3 team may look a lot like house, but a D2 or D1 team may look a lot more like Tier II, or in some rare cases, Tier I.
  • House Hockey – Don’t want to spend $4,000, $7,000, $10,000 on your kid’s first year of competitive hockey?  You might want to consider the fine house hockey programs offered at rinks around the country.  These teams are considerably more affordable, have much lighter schedules (maybe one practice and one game per week), and most coaches and parents do not treat the games as though the top scout for the Chicago Blackhawks is watching from the stands.  The level of play is typically lower than travel hockey, but if you’re just starting out, or if you are not in the high five-figure salary range, this might be a good solution for you.
  • “Already Signed” – This is what happens when a team from last season is solid and/or successful, and they decide to bring most of their team back for next season.  Sure, your average travel team has 16-18 players on the roster (including two goalies), but your kid may be competing for only a small number of open spots on the team due to 75 percent of the players already having signed their contracts for next season before the first tryout skate has begun.  If your kid is a goalie, hopefully both that team’s goalies haven’t already signed on for next season–or, well, happy spending!
  • Billeting – There is real, official billeting, and then unofficial cheating-the-rules billeting.  In Arizona, teams are limited as to how many players from outside the state they can give roster spots to.  HINT: If your kid was born in 2005 or since, the answer is NONE.  As of today, the Arizona Amateur Hockey Association (the state board that all travel teams in Arizona are supposed to answer to) does NOT allow non-Tier teams to billet their players.  That means everyone on your kid’s team should also be living somewhere in Arizona with a parent or guardian.  At the 14u Tier level and above, only a couple to a few billeted kids are allowed per team.  Trying to figure out how those seven kids on the team all have thick Minnesota accents?  Yah.  Sure.  They all magically have grandparents, aunts and uncles that they live with for family (read: NOT hockey) reasons within Arizona.  I know, nothing is more frustrating than having your kid bust his hide for a few years, only to have the organization decide to throw away the local kids and import a couple new players.

Fees, Costs, Travel, Fees and Fees
Hockey is not a poor man’s (or women’s) sport.  I have estimated that the average travel hockey fee in the Phoenix area is around $4,000 per season.  That “contract” fee typically includes your practice ice, game jerseys, practice jersey, game and practice socks, warmup track suit, off-ice warmup shirt and shorts, stipends for your coach(es) and possibly team manager, and administrative fees.  Some teams include more gear–like helmets, gloves and bags (though they almost never include protective gear for goalies). Some organizations include the “team account” in this fee, which can cover things like tournament entry fees, coach travel expenses, off-ice conditioning sessions, skills coaching and extra practice ice–some organizations do not include this fee at all.  If that fee isn’t included, expect to pay an extra $750-1500 in most cases to help build the team account.  Some, if they include travel costs for the players, or extra player gear (or, like two particular organizations in the Phoenix area, all personalization costs for your gear), can run a little to significantly higher.  ASK QUESTIONS before accepting or signing a contract.  The last thing you want to do is commit your kid to Team X thinking the costs are $4,000–already stretching your budget, only to discover that there’s going to be another $1,500 payment due on August 1st for a team account.

Travel costs are another issue all together.  Some older teams may opt to travel coaches, kids, and maybe manager(s) only–which might mean $500 or so per trip plus airfare.  Younger teams typically expect that a parent will take the kid to their tournaments.  If the tournament is in Las Vegas or Anaheim, maybe this costs you around $1,000 for the weekend.  However, if your team is flying to Detroit, $2,000 or more might be necessary after you add airfare and car rental (and obviously, if the whole family of five is going…well…).  Can you finance or make payment arrangements for these trips?  Sure–just talk to Chase or Capital One or Citibank or your credit card provider of choice.  Beyond the money per trip, you might also want to know how many trips the team will make.  Some younger teams may just make one “fly away” trip, and keep the rest local, or maybe throw in a “drivable” trip like LA, San Diego or Las Vegas (from Phoenix).  Some teams that sell themselves as “AAA Elite” and “AAAAA Super Duper Mega Elite” are more likely to tax your wallet by taking four, five, six–even seven fly-away trips during the course of the season.

Are there local options for tournaments?  Sure.  The Phoenix area hosted five open tournaments last season–some very strong and competitive like the Arizona Hockey Union’s Presidents Day Invitational (largest Presidents’ Day Tournament in the country several years in a row) and PWC’s Arizona Cactus Cup (97 teams over MLK Weekend 2017 from several different states and multiple Canadian provinces), other solid or growing options like AHU’s Thanksgiving Tournament, the Coyote Cup (between Christmas and New Years), the Southwest Elite AAA Showcase (also over Winter Break), and the Columbus Day Weekend AHU Ice Breaker Invitational.

Making the decision to have your kid play travel hockey should not be taken lightly.  Over the ten seasons Micah played travel hockey, we easily spent over $100,000 on the sport between fees, travel, private lessons, camps, clinics and protective gear.  That’s a really nice down payment on a house.  That’s two nice cars or four reasonable cars (or one high-end Tesla Model S, or a used Model X).  Would you spend that much money on anything else without being an educated consumer?

Before I give you my list of suggested questions, let me start with a few warnings:

  • No, the stands are not lined with professional scouts looking to sign or draft your kid into the NHL.  They’re simply not.  Might there be select tournaments that the highest level, older Tier kids play in where scouts from hockey boarding schools, NCAA or Juniors programs show up to find talented players?  Yes.  Are these scouts going to be at your 10u (Squirt) state league games or at the Labor Day Tournament in San Diego?  I will say emphatically NO.  Hockey is a sport–for 99.95 percent of our kids, it’s about having fun, making friends and developing as young men and women.  If you want your kid in this for any other reason, might I suggest another sport?  (Actually, those of you that this applies to have likely stopped reading long ago…)
  • There are no questions about where your money is being spent that you should not be able to ask.  Some organizations are very up-front about where your money is going, providing you a pretty detailed breakdown of what part of your fees goes to pay which expense.  Other organizations just give you a bottom line and say, “You can either pay this or have your kid go play somewhere else.”  Your choice, I suppose.  If you’re made to feel afraid to ask the money questions, is that really somewhere you want your kid to be?  I don’t care what heights they claim they’ll take your kid.
  • No organization is going to make your kid a star.  Know how many players in the NHL played their youth hockey, in part or whole, in Arizona?  Less than the fingers on one shop teacher’s hand.  Know how many kids player Tier, Non-Tier, High School or House hockey in Arizona just this last season?  Well over a thousand.  You do the math.  Can your kid excel?  Can he or she work hard and maximize potential?  Yes and yes!  Should you put that weight on your kid?  No.  Will having a coach that played in the NHL, AHL, ECHL, NCAA, WSHL or any other HL guarantee your kid success?  No.  The coolness factor of your kid playing for someone that you still have a jersey for in your closet will wear off quickly.  This is not to say that those guys and girls are bad coaches–some are fantastic.  It’s just a reminder that it takes more than a famous name, even of an elite, skilled former player, to make it to the pros (and making it to the pros should not be a consideration when finding a home for your 9- or 11- or 13-year old).
  • Treat tryouts like you should treat job interviews.  It shouldn’t just be about whether or not your kid can get on a particular team–it should also be about whether that team is a good fit for your kid–and your whole family.  Hockey is a family sport.  We spend lots of time mingling with our kid’s teammate’s families.  On good teams, you develop a hockey family–where people become more than hockey parents or siblings with kids on the same team, they become friends, life-long friends.
  • Be friendly, be polite, and don’t badmouth other kids, teams or organizations when you’re at the rink.  Hockey is a funny game, and the youth hockey community is a very small world.  You never know today who your kid might play with tomorrow–who his or her coach might be–or which rink you might be calling home next.  Don’t burn bridges unnecessarily.

Now–those questions:

  • Money Matters.  Ask the tough questions about fees, what’s included in them, what’s not included in them, and how payments need to be made.  Hockey is an expensive game.  Don’t get yourself in over your head.  At the same time, know where your money is going.  If you can’t get straight answers, you might want to head straight to another rink.
  • Organizational Structure.  It might be nice to know whom answers to who.  If you have a question about payments, who is the treasurer?  Does someone else work with financial issues?  If you ever have a problem with a coach, who do you turn to?  Does someone monitor organizational compliance with USA Hockey rules like SafeSport, background checks, coaching proficiency certificates, age-level appropriate coaching modules?  Who actually handles the money?  Does each team have to have their own team account, handled by a team manager, or does the organization oversee all accounts?  All organizations have some sort of Board of Directors.  Find out about them.  What do they do?  How are they chosen?  (Not all are elected…)  What responsibilities do they have?
  • Community Service.  Does the team intend to do anything to help those in the community?  One of the best ways to bring a team together is to have them do team-based philanthropy projects.  You can learn a lot about a team–and an organization, by what they do or don’t encourage their teams to do for others.  I can tell you–there are organizations that do community service project after community service project, that volunteer parent hours to help with youth hockey in Arizona–both inside and outside their own organization…then there are organizations that simply don’t care to make that part of their plans.  If you ask and get a dirty look or a blank stare, you have your answer.  If youth hockey is really about developing young men and women, building our future–what kind of future do you want your kids associated with?
  • Team Travel Plans.  Some teams and organizations will have handy fact sheets available at tryouts, telling you what kind of league, tournament and travel considerations you need to consider if your kid is going to be on that team.  Some do not.  Ask.  Ask.  Ask.  Don’t get caught off-guard at the first team meeting in late August when the manager or coach starts talking about the six trips to the Midwest and East Coast your team will be taking.  Don’t assume that because an organization talks about “making hockey more affordable” that they don’t travel–a lot.  Talk is cheap.  Travel hockey is not.
  • Your Kid’s Role.  When your kid gets an offer to play on a team, is your kid going to be an equal member of the team, or is he/she getting the “benefit of superior (?) coaching and lots of ice time to develop during practices?”  Most teams don’t have a different pay structure for kids that are backup or part-time players.  No, not every kid is going to be the star, and the older the team, the more uneven playing time tends to be–but know what you and your kid can expect when it comes to playing time and opportunities.  This goes doubly-so for goalies.  Is your kid going to get a chance to split the net 50-50 (with an understanding that the coaches, especially again on older teams, reserve the right to go with the “hot hand”), or is your kid the backup and practice goalie for full-sheet practices?  Again, most teams don’t prorate the goalie’s fees (at least not in Arizona) based on playing time.  If you kid is the backup and only going to play one out of every 6-8-10 games, and may travel for tournaments but never touch the ice after pregame warmups, you deserve to know that before you commit thousands of dollars (plus travel, team and equipment expenses) to the sport.
  • Girls On Teams.  This one typically only applies to parents with girl hockey players.  It’s been pretty well documented recently that girls hockey is often not treated at all equally, even up to the USA Hockey level.  There are no rules that I’m aware of that prevent a 14u, 16u or even 18u Tier team from taking girls on their rosters.  If your daughter can keep up and play even-up with the boys, she should be able to play with the boys.  Sure, there are girls-only options (in Arizona, we have the Lady Coyotes), but if your daughter has played on co-ed teams since she was six, and she is still enjoying playing on co-ed teams at 14, why not try to play on a co-ed team at 15?  Most rinks offer a girls-only locker room for older girls and young women to have some privacy when it comes time to change (and if the rink doesn’t, accommodations can be provided).  Just something to think about…

Quick Decisions
Most organizations, unfortunately, push you to choose their team right away.  Some give a 24- to 48-hour window with which to give your answer, or they’ll “give you kid’s spot to someone else.”  The truth is, if your kid is actually particularly good, he or she won’t have a problem hooking on with another team if you need more time to decide.  Don’t be pressured into a decision that you might regret.

Consider all the pros and cons of each organization: costs, coaches, organization and team “feel”, playing time opportunities, other intangibles above.  Every organization in Arizona has it’s benefits, and every organization in Arizona has it’s weaknesses.  No single organization is perfect.  Ever wonder how one organization can only have AA and AAA teams, but others only have A and B?  If an organization frequently pulls in kids from other organizations or other states, how loyal are they to their own players?  What kind of environment do you want your kid in?  There are lots of facets to consider…

In the end, ask your questions, pay attention, and above all–listen to your kids.  Sometimes the most important deal-breaking decisions will come down to what your kids think, how comfortable they seem.  If your kid wants to play with his friends on a “AA” team, should you force him to play on a “AAA” team?  (Not to mention, is the team “AA” or “AAA” in name only–are they really better than the more vowel-restricted teams in the area?)


Best of luck at tryouts everyone!