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Scoring a Career in Pro Hockey

If you've ever passed a puck around a rink, you've probably wondered, "Do I have what it takes? Could I become a professional hockey player?"

That dream is alive and well for millions of North American kids and teens. But is it realistic? What are the odds of being able to play for money, and not just for the love of the game?

The short answer is that breaking into the ranks of professional hockey is more difficult than ever. But there's always a chance for those with talent and determination.

"I think it's becoming more competitive because more kids are taking an aggressive approach in their nutrition and training," says hockey scout Andrew Lavoie.

"It's making it much more competitive now for kids that are on the fence or only 80 percent committed," he says. "Now the kids who are only 80 percent committed, they don't make it."

Despite the increased competition, new opportunities keep cropping up.

Women's hockey, in particular, is growing by leaps and bounds. The International Ice Hockey Federation says women’s hockey is becoming more popular in almost every part of the world.

However, there are no professional women's hockey teams -- yet.

"Throughout history girls and women weren't supposed to play or [it was thought] that they couldn't play," says Fran Rider. She's president of a women's hockey association.

So what has changed? "A key part of moving it forward was the high performance events like the world championships and national championships, then with the announcement that we were accepted in the Olympics," says Rider. (Women's hockey became an Olympic event in 1998.)

"Young girls can now dream about putting on their jersey and playing for their country," she says. "That's been a huge part of it."

The slow economy has affected the number of opportunities for aspiring hockey players, says Jack Michaels. He's vice-president of operations for the Alaska Aces, a team in the ECHL.

"With professional hockey players, within the last year or two, there have been a couple of reductions," says Michaels. "Some teams in Europe have... gone out of business. The ECHL has gone from about 28 to 20 teams over the last six years. So that contraction has cut some opportunities down. It's a function of the general economy."

Despite the challenges, exceptional players will still find doors open to them.

"As a player you still have an opportunity to make a ton of money if you're extremely talented," says Michaels.

To get drafted by a professional team, you need to impress a hockey scout. Hockey scouts look for well-rounded players who offer more than just nifty passes and solid body checks. Players need to focus on nutrition, leadership skills (both on the ice and in their community), a positive attitude and proper training.

"That's what scouts are looking for today -- it's a total package," says Lavoie. "Are they fit, do they take an active involvement on and off the ice, do they have a positive attitude?"

Attitude is often what sets apart those who make it to the NHL, says Lavoie. You can't make yourself taller and you can only do so much to get faster, but you can work on maintaining a positive outlook.

"When you get a kid who's a gem -- 5'10"-plus in height and has the size to him -- then attitude is a big part of it," says Lavoie.

How does a player show a positive attitude? One way is by not taking things personally.

"If a coach says, 'OK, you're going to sit off this game,' the kid needs to rebound and not have his head down about it," says Lavoie.

Michaels agrees that the right attitude is essential. "Some of it has to do with talent, but there are just as many stories of kids who didn't bring the work ethic, didn't have the requisite character," he says. "Let's face it, not a lot of kids want to play four or five days a week and travel by bus. It's not an easy thing to do."

Hockey players need a lot of support if they hope to go pro some day. They can't do it on their own.

"A kid needs to be pushed to a certain degree, but he has to have positive pushing or positive support from the parents, and communication between the player and the coach, and the previous coaches as well," says Lavoie.

And at the end of the day, it's not enough to be really good. You also have to get noticed.

"Most teams now will have scouting support staff on board," says Lavoie. "The coverage is much better than it was even five years ago... so it's much easier for a player to get noticed. However, having said that, it's about being involved in highly touted programs."

If you don't manage to get into the top-level amateur leagues, getting discovered by a hockey scout won't be as easy. But there are things you can do.

"If you're playing in a Division 2 or maybe only a Midget A, it's going to be harder to get noticed," says Lavoie. "You might have to do some legwork. You have to maybe send some videos to some scouts and say, 'Hey, have a look at me.'"

Michaels says aspiring professional hockey players need to be realistic about their chances. He says more and more players are getting their university degrees, so they have a Plan B if they don't make it to the NHL. This is a very smart idea.

"If you're 19 or 20, and you're not dominating [your junior ice hockey league], you need to ask yourself, 'Am I really going to go pro?'" says Michaels. "If you're not dominating the 16- and 17-year-olds when you're 19 or 20, I think the chances of making the NHL are extremely unlikely."

Fortunately, hockey can provide the foundation for a lot of other careers. For example, players can become coaches at colleges and universities.

"A lot of the players make very good coaches down the road," says Rider. "They can also go into officiating.

"It also opens doors to a lot of careers -- certainly the fire (departments), police and military recruit heavily from our girls," she says. "The fitness level is there, and the commitment, and the ability to work within a team. And the life skills that you gain from hockey are very beneficial in the business world. The self-esteem, the ability to exceed individually and [learning] how it fits within a team's success."

Hockey players who compete at the Olympics -- both male and female -- can earn endorsement deals from companies. They also get financial support from the government, and can earn large bonuses if they win medals. Some players go on to earn speaking fees as motivational speakers. And some hockey players go on to manage their own hockey schools.


National Hockey League
Find information on the league and its teams, history, rules, entry draft and more

Central Hockey League
A professional league formed by the amalgamation of the CHL and the WPHL

A mid-level professional ice hockey league

American Hockey League
This professional league serves as a stepping stone to the NHL

Hockey Schools
A listing of hockey schools across North America

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