While coaching one day, an 12 year old player skated up to me and said, "Hey Coach, what can I do to make it to the NHL"? I was taken back at first because I saw the seriousness in his eyes and he was very sincere with his questions. At first I gave the typical "hard work" line that we've heard so many times, but after giving the question more thought I would have liked to, and should have said more than just work hard.
So what does it take?
First off, the most important thing for a young player is to keep up their grades! School work should be a top priority. The dream of making it to the NHL are slim, but no child wants to hear that. Parents we have a responsibility to prepare them for "Plan B" if they don't wear an NHL sweater which means they need to have decent grades for other options to open up.
It takes more than just lacing up the skates every day and a work out regime to add muscle mass to increase your chances. There obviously needs to be some talent and a good understanding of the game, but what I really see making an average player into an effective player is heart and passion. Players who play with heart and a passion to be there always seem to win out with the coaches over a talented player who is lazy. It's like the old saying that we've seen hanging up in a locker room somewhere reminding us all the time to give it 100%: "Hard work beats talent, when talent doesn't work hard." Speaking of the coaches; listen to them!
Ok, so we know that you have to have some talent, heart, a brain, and a passion. What else is there?
To be honest, a little luck. There are eyes everywhere around the hockey rink. You never know who is watching you play and who that person is connected to. If you have "the right stuff" word will get out and you will be found. There are many places you can play to increase your visibility but if you are really that good, you will be found. I remember filling in for a coach who had been suspended and coached a game in Brick against some kid name James Van...something. When the puck hit his stick, it made a different sound. You could just tell that this kid was going to be found and he was. He didn't play AAA at 12 to be found. He was playing AA the time he was noticed (and probably was noticed a lot earlier than that). The point is, he wasn't traveling all over the country while his parents shelled out thousands of dollars to be recognized. He just played and someone heard about him.
So what would I say now to that players question? It would probably sound something like this:
"Johnny, if you want to play in the NHL then I support your dream 100%, but there is nothing I can say or do to help your chances. It's really up to you. I will guide you the best I can, but remember that this is just a game and your family and school should be the top priorities right now. Keep working hard in practice. When I ask you guys to skate to the blue line that means all the way to the blue line. Don't short yourself in any drill and always keep trying things that are outside your comfort zone. If you fall down, get right back up. If you lose the puck, go back and get it. At the end of the day, if you do everything in your power and do not make it to the NHL, just remember why you play this game to begin with. To have fun."
I guess I'll have something to tell the next person who asks me that question.