The high price of promise There's no time for big-league dreams anymore as parents hire agents and pay for private hockey academy tuition while their kids fear not being drafted — at 14 or 15 — to play junior in the WHL
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/05/2018 (1612 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Carson Lambos is now that much closer to his ultimate dream.
A fierce, high-IQ, puck-moving defenceman with a wicked shot and a relentless drive to compete, Lambos has long dreamed of making it all the way to the NHL. And at six feet tall and 197 pounds, he already has the size and physical presence comparable to NHL D-men like his idol, Drew Doughty of the L.A. Kings.
And here’s the really remarkable part: he’s only 15 years old.
A product of Hockey Winnipeg and, most recently, the Rink Hockey Academy Nationals program, on Thursday morning, Carson was selected second overall by the Kootenay Ice in the Western Hockey League bantam draft. It’s an accomplishment that does not guarantee him a long and successful career in junior or professional hockey. But it certainly puts him at the top of a class of prospects that will be looking to make it into the NHL sometime in the next four or five years.
The WHL draft itself is unique in Canadian hockey in that it focuses all of its attention on players who are 14 and 15 years old. That makes it the youngest draft in junior hockey, and one of the more controversial expressions of Canada’s pervasive hockey culture.
The timing of the draft also means putting teenagers such as Carson through a particularly rigorous year of hockey that has them not only competing for position in the WHL draft, but also Hockey Manitoba’s Pursuit of Excellence (POE) program, which develops players for the U-16 Team Manitoba that gears up for play in the Canada Winter Games.
And all this happens to kids who still have three years of high school left.
It’s an experience that breaks some teens, but not Carson.
“I wouldn’t say that I’m relieved,” Carson says shortly after being selected.
“I would say that I’m excited. I am glad the wait for the draft is over because now I can start thinking about moving on to the next level.”
His father Steve confirms that Carson has weathered the storm that is the bantam year with remarkable composure. But then again, the Lambos family has been through all of this before; Carson’s older brother Jonathon was drafted into the WHL two years ago.
“It’s been calm,” Steve says. “Carson is a humble kid and he just loves to play the game. We try not to talk too much about the draft but it’s hard to get away from it. We’ve already talked with a lot of teams and scouts and it’s been going on, like, for a couple of years now.”
Steve says his experience in 2016 with Jonathon — another product of the Rink Hockey Academy program whose junior rights are now the property of the Brandon Wheat Kings — certainly helped prepare the family for the madness of Carson’s bantam draft year.
Steve says he has taken a practical approach this time. The family retained an agent to advise them and had been in contact with several WHL teams interested in drafting Carson.
“I’ve seen a lot of players and families get caught up in the draft, worrying about if they’re going to get drafted, where they’re going to get drafted,” he says. “At the end of the day, Carson will end up where he ends up, and I think wherever that is, he’ll do well.”
For the next two years, Carson says he will likely continue to play with the RHA Nationals and work on his overall game. Then his one focus will be to crack the Kootenay lineup as a 16 year old. And then, two years after that, establishing his credentials in the WHL so he can convince a NHL team to draft him.
“My goal is to make the NHL, for sure,” the calm and collected teen says. “For now, I know that this draft isn’t where the work stops. It’s where the hard work really begins.”
There’s an argument to be made that for top prospects in Western Canada, the real work of earning a place in the uppermost reaches of hockey begins much earlier than that.
Summer is officially over for the 13 and 14 year olds inside the Bell MTS Iceplex on the western edge of the city.
It’s mid-August and the weather outside the four-rink hockey complex is pretty much what you’d expect it to be; a relentless sun sits high in a nearly clear sky, bathing the city in 30 C temperatures that are only occasionally interrupted by a mild, westerly breeze. That idyllic summer of 2017 scene seems to be a world away from the environment inside the Iceplex, where 108 of Manitoba’s top 13-year-old AAA players are skating in the Western Hockey League skills combine.
For three days, the players perform skating, shooting and passing while being observed by keenly trained eyes and timed with laser-activated gates. They also play in exhibition games to test their mettle against the other prospects and reveal their hockey IQ. Everything they do is watched and noted by scouts. Lots and lots of scouts.
In fact, inside the rink, it’s nearly impossible to swing a composite stick without hitting someone in a fleece jacket holding a clipboard that contains a WHL-Hockey Manitoba combine scouting package, where all the players’ names, along with their birthdates and contact information, is listed.
The message to the players and their parents is pretty clear: if you have any interest in making hockey a career, this is the beginning of the most important year in your entire life thus far. It’s also the first point of contact between these young players and the business of hockey.
This is part of the catchment area for the venerable Western Hockey League, a loop of 22 teams that extends across the four western provinces and into Oregon and Washington states. The WHL drafts prospects into its system at the conclusion of their second year of bantam hockey, when most of the players are, or will turn, 14 during the season. This is the youngest junior hockey draft in the country, a full year earlier than the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League which, along with the WHL, make up the Canadian Hockey League.
To put that into perspective, the WHL draft takes place two full years before any of the prospects are eligible to suit up for a WHL team and several years more before they reach their adult levels of physical and emotional maturity.
As the combine players warm up on the ice, you can see a huge contrast in size and shape. There are a good number of kids who are closer to five feet tall than six. Even the bigger kids — and there are more than a handful who are already man-size — have yet to develop the strength and balance necessary to take full advantage of their large frames.
When the showcase games start, the physical disparities become even more alarming.
The 13-year-old players, fully aware scouts are in attendance, play with a tryout-level ferocity. Larger players that lack the pure skill to dazzle those in attendance try to make up for it by throwing their weight around. The smaller, skilled players overcome some of this exaggerated aggression with speed. Others, however, are tossed around the ice like Beanie Babies by the big kids hoping to make an impact.
Many of the scouts in attendance will tell you there are moments when they can spot some little detail that reveals something important about a player’s future.
A sudden burst of speed, a deft bit of puck-handling, a high-speed pivot, a pass that reveals vision and creativity. There are no sure things to be found at a combine like this, but flashes of brilliance are enough to cause scouts to scribble madly in their notebooks, which, in and of itself, is enough to get a player on a WHL club’s radar. Even when most knowledgeable hockey people agree that it’s virtually impossible to predict exactly what a kid will look like two or three years down the road when he’s ready to play junior hockey.
“It’s hard to gauge just how successful a player is going to be at this age,” says one WHL scout, who asked not to be named. “Some of us scouts are a bit uncomfortable with having to approach kids and their families at this age. But it’s the nature of the game. When you’ve got bona fide NHL stars playing at 18, suddenly 13 doesn’t seem to be all that young anymore.
“The game is changing, it’s skewing younger and younger. You can’t get away from that.”
Perhaps, but the focus on players at such a tender age does have implications for the results of the draft. Just how successful is the WHL’s bantam-age draft? It depends on how you look at it.
The players promoted by the WHL as part of its marketing program are certainly bona fide stars in the NHL. And since 1995, just about every first pick overall in the bantam draft has gone on to play in the NHL. For some, it was a cup of coffee or a few short years. For others, it was a long and successful career.
The top performing first picks include players such as Jarret Stoll (1997), who played 14 years in the NHL and won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings. Other notable first picks include Jay Bouwmeester (1998) of the St. Louis Blues, Braydon Couburn (2000) of the Tampa Bay Lightening, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2008) of the Edmonton Oilers, Jake Virtanen (2011) of the Vancouver Canucks and Matthew Barzal (2012) of the New York Islanders, a favourite to win this year’s Calder Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top rookie.
While that is impressive, it’s somewhat less impressive than the list of NHL players who were never selected in the bantam draft. The WHL also gleefully promotes a list of non-draftees that includes Jerome Iginla, Jeff Friesen, Shane Doan, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith and Jamie Benn, some of whom eventually played in the WHL but were not taken in the draft. About one-quarter of all the players in the WHL last season were not identified in the draft.
Peter Woods, executive director of Hockey Manitoba, says past results show the draft does a pretty good job of identifying NHL-calibre talent at an early age. However, with 22 WHL teams and 14 rounds, a total of 308 players are drafted each year. And history has shown clearly that the majority of those selections will never play a game in the WHL, let alone the NHL, he says.
Woods also says the reality for many prospects is that even if they go undrafted, they have not gone unnoticed. Stories abound about undrafted bantam players receiving calls and letters in the week following the draft, inviting them to WHL prospect camps. WHL teams maintain a 50-player protected list that includes players as young as 14 and as old as 20.
“I don’t think we need to be rushing these kids into anything,” he says. “There are a lot of late bloomers in hockey that need more time to really develop. We put so much pressure on these kids in their bantam year and if they don’t get drafted, they think their life is over. If we push it back, I really think we’ll see more hits and fewer misses in the draft.”
At times, WHL’s bantam combine seems more like a trade show than a hockey showcase.
The Iceplex lobby is littered with huge pop-up posters of past WHL stars who made it to the NHL, players such as Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks and Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens. They feature slogans like “EXCEL at the highest level,” “PLAY with the best” and “REACH your full potential.” Glossy, full-colour brochures trumpet the WHL as “World Leaders in Player Development and Education.”
Information packages not only boast about the number of players who have made it to the NHL; much of the content focuses on the academic scholarships offered to WHL players. For every year in the league, a player will receive a free year at a Canadian college or university.
Although most of the parents attending the combine would rightly feel that their sons have to earn their way onto a WHL roster, it’s hard to get away from the fact that the league itself is engaged in a hard sell to convince home-grown prospects to stay in Western Canada and not seek their road to the hockey glory through the U.S. college system.
WHL commissioner Ron Robison makes no apologies for the trade-show elements of the combines, or the league’s efforts to discourage families from looking south for hockey opportunities. For the WHL, these are issues of pure survival in a marketplace where competition for the top hockey talent has never been more fierce.
Robison says the WHL will stick with its 14-year-old bantam draft largely because the league is battling a U.S. college system that is just as, or even more aggressive, in scouting and recruiting players, sometimes years earlier than the Canadian system.
For example, College Hockey Inc., the NCAA’s chief hockey marketing agency, holds a recruitment event at the Iceplex each year; prospects get to skate in a practice run by NCAA coaches, followed by a Q&A session for players and their families. This event is typically scheduled for a week or so before the WHL combine, a clear sign to junior hockey officials that the NCAA threat remains very real.
“There is no doubt that the competition from the NCAA puts downward pressure on the system, and encourages us to make contact with players earlier,” Robison says. “We are finding players who are being considered for the bantam draft tell us they have already verbally committed to playing college hockey.”
The ongoing battle between the CHL and the NCAA is the stuff of legends. Ironically, the concerns expressed on both sides of the border are nearly identical — rival leagues poaching top prospects after they have made a commitment to a team.
The only real difference in the two countries is that the CHL allows its teams to sign players who may have already committed to a U.S. college. In the NCAA, however, a prospect that makes any formal commitment to a CHL team — even at 14 years old — forfeits their college eligibility forever. The U.S. college system considers the CHL, which does pay a weekly stipend of about $335 per player in addition to meal money, a professional league.
The NCAA restricts its teams and coaches from directly contacting prospects who are younger than 15, but the WHL believes that loopholes have been deliberately left in place to allow for soft contact long before an official recruitment process begins. One of the biggest is that college coaches or scouts are permitted to speak directly to coaches in Canada to express interest in a particular player, knowing full well that the message will get through to the player and his family.
Hockey Manitoba’s Woods says that in some ways, he thinks the CHL has become too concerned with the threat posed by the NCAA. There are not as many opportunities for Canadian prospects to play in the U.S. college system as there once were, he says. The numbers from College Hockey Inc. bear this out.
In the last full season, just over one-quarter of all players on U.S. college teams were from Canada, down precipitously from 20 or 30 years ago, when it was not unusual to find teams with a roster almost entirely made up of Canadians. This is partly due to the rapid rise in the number of U.S. kids playing hockey, and the desire by hockey officials south of the border to use the college system as a principal route to develop professional-calibre players.
All this means that prospects, other than the very cream of the crop, are not being offered as many full-ride scholarships to U.S. schools. Instead, Canadian prospects looking for the college experience are being offered partial scholarships, which means they and their families are still facing tuition bills of tens of thousands of dollars to make up the difference.
Robison says there is a solution that could eliminate the arms race between the NCAA and the CHL, but it would require a major reconfiguration of the development programs on both sides of the border. In short, he says an agreement must be reached to allow younger elite players — between the ages of 15 and 19 — to focus on playing Canadian junior hockey. The NCAA would be allowed to recruit players within the junior system with the understanding that they could not switch to a college team until they turn 19 or 20.
Robison says most colleges prefer to formally commit to Canadian prospects when they are older, even in their early 20s, when they are near their full physical maturity and are more predictable in terms of the value they bring as hockey players.
The NHL may also have an interest in seeing hockey development push back the age of drafts at the junior, college and even professional level.
Former NHL star Pat Lafontaine, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and currently the NHL’s vice-president of hockey development and community affairs, chairs an advisory committee that includes 17 hockey development organizations, including the National Hockey League Players Association, the CHL and the NCAA.
Last fall, Lafontaine helped unveil an eight-point “declaration of principles” for hockey development that all organizations would adopt. Although the principles are all fairly non-specific, Fontaine says raising the age of NHL draft eligibility from its current 18 to 19 years is certainly an option being discussed.
“And I think when we look at it — you look at the way hockey is today — relieving maybe some of that pressure and pushing the dial of development to the right on all levels would benefit the experience (of players and their families),” Lafontaine told Sportsnet last September.
Comments like that create some hope that all the competing factors could, one day, create a consensus for delaying the recruiting age at the earliest stages of an elite player’s career.
“There is a win-win situation here for us and them,” Robison says. “Moving back the age of college recruitment would eliminate all the competition we see at early ages and give the schools a significant pool of developed talent to choose from. Let’s face it, when we’re looking at 14-year-old players… we can only project what a player might look like down the road.”
That view is certainly backed up by the people working in the area of the science of sport.
Jeff Powell is a former Olympic rower and now the general manager of the Canadian Sport Centre at the University of Manitoba, the province’s support hub for high-performance athletes. Powell says all the available research on long-term athlete development suggests that trying to identify future elite-level athletes in any sport at 13 or 14 years of age is a “futile exercise.”
“Across all sports, when you talk about trying to gauge future success, we’re generally terrible at making predictions,” says Powell. “We can spot tendencies. But the truth is that it’s a folly to think that we can pick winners and losers at this age.”
Athletes develop and mature, both physically and emotionally, at different paces throughout their lives, Powell says. Research involving high-performance sport also confirms that athletes born in the first six months of any calendar year outperform those born in the second half of the year, largely because they are older and have matured that much more.
The whole concept of the “draft class” ignores this empirical reality by trying to compare players who can be up to 12 months apart in their physical and mental development, Powell adds. That creates an “apples and oranges” scenario where the older players look much better than the younger ones, not because they have more potential, but because they’re just a little bit older.
Powell says he is concerned that in their rush to draft and sign players, ostensibly to make them ineligible to play in the NCAA, the WHL may be doing more harm than good to its prospects.
“Whenever we look at something like this draft, I ask myself, ‘who is benefiting?'” he says. “Do the athletes benefit from a 14-year-old draft? From a development point of view, it’s a situation that has no apparent benefit for the players. It’s mostly about the interests of the league.”
For most top prospects going into their bantam draft year, there are two inescapable realities.
First, to give you your best shot at hockey glory, you may have to consider attending an expensive private academy program.
And then you may have to get yourself an agent.
It all seems a bit over the top, but the trend lines are pretty clear.
Consider this: in pre-season scouting lists for the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft, more than three-quarters of all the prospects identified as possible first-found picks played in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League, a network of 19 hockey prep and varsity programs across Western Canada. The CSSHL features teams from three Manitoba programs: the Rink Hockey Academy Nationals in Winnipeg, which has teams in three divisions; St. Mary’s Academy in Winnipeg has a team in the female prep stream; and the Pilot Mound Hockey Academy Buffaloes has teams in three divisions.
The buy-in for prep or sport school hockey is not for the faint of heart. Tuition for schools in the CSSHL run between $15,000 and $40,000 per year, depending on location and whether the program is a full private school or, like the Rink Hockey Academy and Pilot Mound, where students attend public school and play hockey at a private facility.
The cost alone turns off a lot of people. But the basic structure of the programs would likely appeal to most, if not all, hockey families.
Take the RHA National program in Winnipeg. According to bantam prep head coach Brad Purdie, the RHA structures its school and hockey schedules to give kids as much time away from the rink in the evening as possible.
Classes for RHA students start at 7:30 a.m. on weekdays at Shaftesbury High School in Tuxedo, and wrap up at 12:30 p.m. Students eat and then make their way to The Rink training facility or Southdale Community Centre for practice at 1:30 p.m. After on-ice training, the kids hit the gym and finish up with a study period. All told, the kids are done and back home around dinner time.
Games involve a lot of travel across Western Canada, some by bus and some by air. However, all games are scheduled on weekends to avoid losing time at school.
“There’s no doubt the kids have very busy days,” says Purdie. “A lot of our guys are pretty tired by the time we knock off. A lot of them tell me they are in bed and asleep by 8:30 p.m.”
Hockey Manitoba’s Peter Woods says many people in the hockey community shuddered when Pilot Mound and RHA started their programs, concerned that it would drain top players out of the minor hockey system. And while that may be true, he adds, it’s hard to get away from the fact the hockey academies do offer, for those who can afford them, a very attractive alternative to the grind of AAA hockey.
The AAA experience involves the same intensity of hockey training, but spread out over a much longer day. AAA players often find themselves on the ice late on weeknights and weekends. There is less time spent travelling, unless you play for a provincial AAA team from one of the rural regions; then there is likely just as much time spent on the bus as there is in the prep programs.
And while AAA hockey is not as expensive as prep, it’s certainly not cheap. Average team fees for a midget AAA team can go as high as $10,000 per season, and that does not factor in additional private skills development or off-ice training, which many players pay for out of their own pockets.
Although there are some dramatic differences in the programs, Purdie says the one thing AAA and hockey academy players share is the stress and strain of preparing for the bantam draft. The RHA staff try to act as advisers for students who are eligible, reminding them that not getting picked really doesn’t affect their hockey future.
Even so, he says, the kids feel the pressure.
“The game itself has changed dramatically,” says Purdie, who played NCAA Division I hockey for the University of Maine, as well as various professional leagues, including the IHL, ECHL and AHL. “I think back to when I was 14 and growing up in Montreal, I never even thought about the Q(MJHL) draft. Now, these kids think about it all year long. It’s become a 12-month-a-year job just to get ready.”
The bantam draft phenomenon creates other kinds of stress, such as the need to retain the services of an agent before prospects even reach high school, he says.
“We try to give them as much guidance as possible and we have a lot of experience we can rely on,” he says. “Most of our staff have been through this kind of thing before. But some families, you know, want their own adviser.”
The role of agents — or “player advisers” as they are often called — is a murky area of concern across the hockey landscape. Currently, even agents and firms certified by the NHLPA to represent pros are permitted to approach prospects and their families at almost any age. Signing a contract with an agent would compromise a prospect’s NCAA eligibility. However, paying for the services of an adviser without signing anything is completely unregulated.
It’s a relationship that has split the professional sports agent community. “There are definitely players and families, top prospects, who need the advice of an agent,” says Ray Petkau, a NHLPA-certified agent in Steinbach who represents Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
“But it’s become so cutthroat now that agents are going after very young kids. And I’m not sure that in every situation that’s the right thing to do.”
Petkau remembers an incident several years ago while attending a Hockey Manitoba evaluation for its Pursuit of Excellence program — midget-aged players were trying out for a spot on the Team Manitoba U-16 squad. After making some soft inquiries with coaches, he found out virtually every one of the 40 players in that camp had some form of professional representation. It was at that point he decided he wouldn’t actively recruit players under 15.
“Look, it’s difficult for families to navigate through all the rules and different opportunities that are out there and sometimes an agent can be a good resource to help you sort through all the noise,” he says. “But I just don’t think that mid-level bantam prospects need to rush out and hire an agent. It’s overkill.”
Just how cutthroat is the industry when it comes to recruiting kids before the bantam draft? Player agents and WHL scouts who asked not to be named confirmed that a number of unsavoury tactics are used to recruit kids as young as 11 years old, including offering “inducements.”
The agents will sometimes offer to enrol a prospect in an exclusive hockey camp or private lessons at no cost to the family. Other times, the inducements include hockey equipment and expensive sticks or NHL tickets.
“I sat down recently with one family who says, bluntly, ‘This is what I’ve been offered by another agent, can you do any better?'” says another NHL-certified player agent who asked not to be identified.
“I couldn’t believe it. I told them I wasn’t going to get into the game of, ‘I’ll see your six sticks and raise you six more.’ I just walked away.”
Craig Oster, a certified agent with Newport Sports Management, one of the premier hockey agencies in the world, says a variety of factors have all conspired to create pressure on agents to sign increasingly younger clients. The ages for the bantam and NHL drafts, in particular, have created the equivalent of a gold rush among agents to get to prospects when they are still years away from junior and professional hockey.
Oster acknowledged agents can, for some prospects, be a good resource. Particularly if teams are pressuring the player and his family to make a commitment before they are truly ready.
“I think it’s all gotten a little carried away,” says Oster, who played junior and Canadian university hockey.
“We’re telling players and their families that we’re here to help, but in many ways we’re putting them in a very difficult position. I think we, in the hockey world, need to decide together to move things back so we’re dealing with kids when they’re older. I think everyone would eventually agree a move like that would be very positive.”
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Saturday, May 5, 2018 8:52 AM CDT: Placement fixed.