Pro hockey only takes the best of the best of the best.
For example, the NCAA stated that only 6.4 percent of their men’s hockey players move on to play major pro hockey after college. For the remaining 93.6 percent, they’ll have to pay their future bills through employment off the ice.
Thus, getting a good education is of the utmost importance to all athletes, and the USPHL’s National Collegiate Development Conference teams are proactive in promoting continuing education for their post-grads and closely monitoring their high school-aged players while in season.
After all, the mission for the NCDC is to send players on to college - for 2017-18, the NCDC sent 116 players to NCAA Division 1, 2 and 3 schools, for an average of 10.5 NCAA commitments per team.
The NCDC and Premier Division sent a combined 228 players to the NCAA Division 2 and 3 ranks, leading the nation for multi-tiered junior leagues in 2017-18.
“Nowadays, the kids kind of get carried away with the athletics thing,” said South Shore Kings general manager/head coach John Gurskis. “There was a time when schools might overlook a bad academic career and get you in as a college athlete. Those days are over, and now a kid has to hold up his end, academically.”
“The kids who are leaving for junior hockey are motivated players which usually means they’re motivated students as well,” added Sean Tremblay, general manager/head coach of the Islanders Hockey Club. “If a kid coming here has the chance to get into Middlebury College or Trinity College, etc., we want to make sure they can. We are very focused on both education and athletics.”
The average NCDC player last year was right around 19-½ years old, so the vast majority were post-grads.
Just because they might be one or two years out of high school doesn’t mean they put away the books and are all hockey all the time, though. All of the NCDC teams have some degree of advocacy or requirements for continuing education.
This year, some teams will field players with 2000, 2001 or younger birth years who may still be in high school. NCDC teams with younger players not only make sure these athletes are keeping up their grades, but some also work their practice schedules to accommodate their younger athletes.
“The biggest positive factor is the USPHL’s scheduling and footprint. We don’t spend a lot of time on the road and time away from school,” said the Syracuse Jr. Stars general manager Nicole Kirnan Kelly.
No matter what age, the NCDC teams know that their players are 100 percent focused on being college student-athletes, and they will do everything they can on and off the ice to get them there and to succeed when they reach that level.
Colleges almost universally require students to have 120 credit hours in order to graduate. All Division 1 colleges require a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester, but it is 15 credit hours per semester for four years that equal 120.
Student-athletes can take college courses before they are fully enrolled in the college for which they will compete, and can earn transferable college credits they’ll need in order to maintain the minimum 12 per semester and still graduate on time.
“For the kids who are no longer in high school, we leave the weekday evenings and mornings open. They can take courses at Rutgers or other colleges in the area,” said New Jersey Rockets head coach Jason Kilcoyne. “We advise the kids to not take a course that is in their area of interest or potential major, but get the general education classes that will translate to their new school [for which they will compete].
“With our older guys who turned in transcripts that don’t look as well as we’d like, we’ve focused on getting them to the point where they can be considered a transfer. With Division 3 schools, that kind of opens the door and they can both get in, as well as prove they can handle the work at the college level while playing hockey.”
Different NCAA divisions have different regulations and guidelines in terms of transfers and transferring credits. For the full information, go online to NCAA.org, put your cursor over “Student-Athletes” and click on “Want to Transfer?”
“For one, taking the college courses allows the players to keep their minds sharp, but also allows them to understand what a college course is like before they take a full load as a full-time student,” added Tremblay. “If a kid was borderline in terms of academic eligibility coming out of high school, and he gets an ‘A’ in a couple college courses while playing for us, that might be the grease that gets them through the door.”
The Kings’ Gurskis agreed that it always helps incoming freshmen to lighten their load by having taken a few prior college courses.
Rochester Jr. Monarchs general manager/head coach Nick Unger agreed that it is a great help to players to get a handle on college academics with a course or two during juniors.
The Boston Bandits have each of their incoming NCDC players sit down and fill out an educational questionnaire to pinpoint their goals and aspirations.
“Our general manager Mark Jones is a former academic advisor,” said Doug Shepherd, Director of Hockey for the Bandits. “He and his staff are in tune with what is happening with online education that is NCAA compliant, and we also have Bridgewater State University here. Some of their students work with us on internships, and we provide our players with opportunities at that institution.”
“We are in arguably the best area in the country for college options,” added Mike Anderson, general manager/head coach of the Boston Junior Bruins, located in Marlboro, Mass. Junior Bruins students looking to get college credits early do have a wealth of options 15 minutes away in Worcester, as well as in the other direction, to the east and Boston.
“Our schedule works great for players to take a class in the morning, and maybe also in the evening,” Anderson added.
The Northern Cyclones also tout their convenient location in Hudson, N.H., a short drive from 10 different community colleges and universities.
The P.A.L. Junior Islanders feel fortunate to have Mike Marcou as their new coach, as he completed four years at UMass-Amherst only six years ago and has a good handle on what incoming college student-athletes can expect in the 21st century. He can pass that knowledge on to the P.A.L. players. The team also had Dave Starman, their Player and Coaching Development Coordinator, talk to their players at main camp about the NCAA clearinghouse and the overall college process.
The New Jersey Hitmen also have their fingers on the pulse of continuing education online through their relationship with Sean O’Brien, another NCAA clearinghouse advisor.
“When it comes to older players needing to take SAT courses or just a class or two, we work with Sean, who facilitates the students going to the right online school,” general manager/head coach Toby Harris said.
The New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs understand that some players do need to cover their living expenses while playing junior hockey, so they have options to work or take college classes (or some combination of both).
Jim Henkel, general manager/head coach with the Connecticut Jr. Rangers, said that it is tough to mandate his players taking college courses while playing, as he said every player comes from a different background.
“Some of our players may need to get a job and support themselves while playing with us,” Henkel said. “Also, you don’t want to take a class just to take a class. You want to come out with a good grade, so that colleges see that, and say, ‘hey, he was playing and he took a class and did really well. This is clearly a kid who can schedule his time and get things done.’”
Working towards graduation
The New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs are new to the NCDC this year, and many of their younger players will study at Bishop Brady High School in nearby Concord, N.H. However, the team also has a new relationship with CSI Charter School, which offers a mix of online and “brick-and-mortar” school settings.
“I’m very lucky because my father Jerry Frew has been a high school principal and served on the American Association of School Administrators Governing Board. He’s been working in public education in New Hampshire for 44 years,” said Monarchs head coach/general manager Ryan Frew. “He helped us out in getting hooked up with the people at CSI.”
“Our younger players have set periods of time in the morning and after gym time where we put them into the conference room and they can get a couple hours of doing homework,” said the Rockets' Kilcoyne. “It’s really tough to get into a school where we are in New Jersey, so the best option is online schooling for a lot of our players. We work on giving them the support they need, not so much in the curriculum, but in terms of time management.”
The Northern Cyclones offer Cyclones Academy, which includes use of an online education classroom, an academic advisor with office hours, and parent-teacher-coach conferencing.
The New Jersey Hitmen, with their busy day of on-and off-ice work lasting from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. leave the rest of the day open for younger players to follow their online schooling through Laurel Springs Online School.
Those still in high school on the Jr. Rangers are given the first option to hook up with their home high school for online learning. They have Apex Learning Virtual School for those whose home high school does not offer online classes.
The Syracuse Jr. Stars offer many different routes for younger players to their families.
“We work with an online school and a private school, with the online school most often working in terms of flexibility,” said Stars general manager Nicole Kirnan Kelly. “We can also put the player with a billet family in a public school district that will accept outside students.”
At Bridgewater Ice Arena, the Boston Bandits have a quiet classroom space dedicated to their student-athletes continuing their education towards graduation.
The Rochester Jr. Monarchs rotate their practices, and if a younger NCDC player can’t connect with his own team, he can practice with their USPHL Premier team in the afternoon. This helps the organization’s Premier players as well.
“We’re always flexible with high school schedules,” said the Monarchs’ Unger. “We make sure they’re getting on the ice each day, and they can always practice with one team or the other.”
Anderson added that, because the Junior Bruins have a younger than normal team in the NCDC, they practice and work out during after-school hours.
The Islanders Hockey Club and South Shore Kings both feel fortunate to be in the New England area where players of high school age can transfer into strong local schools.
“We are fortunate to live in the greatest place on Earth to go to school as a high school player,” Tremblay said. “Even some of our local [public high schools] are better than some prep schools.”
High schoolers in the NCDC are closely monitored by their teams, in conjunction with parents.
“If they fall behind, it jeopardizes their playing time,” said the Rockets’ Kilcoyne. “Without having the grades and graduating from high school, you can’t go to college and play college hockey.”
“If a kid is not holding up their end from an academic standpoint, and it hasn’t happened often, but we will suspend a player until their marks come up,” added Gurskis, with the South Shore Kings.
They will also get any struggling students the help they need immediately.
The P.A.L. Islanders, through connections with local educators (including GM Ron Kinnear’s own son), are able to reach out to several area tutors for high school aged players who need a little extra help.
“My son is an English literature teacher in Hauppauge [N.Y.], so he’s able to tap into the high school system for tutors and extra help,” said Kinnear. “We are going to a much younger NCDC team this year, so it’s good to have that service available.”
The facts bear out that most athletes will become professionals in other fields besides sports.
The NCDC teams make sure their players have the tools, time and resources that it takes to succeed in the world beyond the ice.
Pictured: Northern Cyclones players of various levels take advantage of Cyclones Academy, an on-site online learning center and advising service. For more information, go online to northerncyclones.com.