Even if the chances of becoming an NHL player are akin to winning a major lottery, the road leading to the “dream” doesn’t have to be filled with pot holes.
Just ask Richmond’s Brayden Low. He hit plenty of them during his time in junior hockey. The one-time Richmond Sockeye and member of numerous Western Hockey League teams knows the pitfalls players can experience.
That’s why he’s developed his own consulting business called Composite Hockey (compositehockey.com).
“I went through junior hockey in a way that I hope that nobody goes through junior hockey,” he said in a phone interview from Edmonton where he is a member of the University of Alberta’s Golden Bears men’s ice hockey team.
His on-ice journey took him all over the map as he slowly climbed up the levels of the sport, battling adversity along much of the route.
“I got drafted out of bantam in Richmond, played for the Sockeyes at 16, signed a contract with Portland (WHL’s Portland Winterhawks), injured my knee in (training) camp, came back at 17 to play in Merritt. And at 18, I was in (WHL teams) Portland, Seattle, and Everett,” Low said. “That’s just not the ideal way of doing things.”
Low felt young hockey players — those under 16 — could benefit from his experiences and get advice on how they can approach the game in numerous ways, including finding the right equipment, understanding eligibility requirements for the WHL and NCAA, dealing with distractions in daily life, and what it’s like to be away from home with a billet family for the first time.
Low said there isn’t anyone out there currently offering that kind of insight, other than coaches, scouts from other organizations higher up the ice hockey food chain, or player agents.
“Certainly, there are agents out there who want to get a hold of these young kids and push them to sign, and then maybe go out of their comfort zone and get on a team right away, rather than perhaps a year or two down the road,” Low said. “Sometimes, a decision like that can come back to bite them.”
Low said he’s made it his job to make young players aware of what they may be getting into, especially if they are considered to be good enough to advance.
Asked if he felt agents provided a positive step for promising young players, Low said no.
“Eventually, the right agent will, absolutely,” he said. “But at 14, 15, and even 16, unless the player is labelled to be an NHL draft pick and play major junior hockey at 16, getting an agent is not always the best thing.”
Low characterized agents seeking out young teenage players to sign as a “cash grab.”
“They just want their agency fee, which is usually around $500, he said, “then they just tend to forget about you.
“If they are an average 15 or 16-year-old player, who has been noticed, then I don’t think an agent is necessary,” he said. “I didn’t know many guys coming up through the system, or even top round picks, who had agents until their draft year.”
Ian Gallagher, director of player development with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants said the direction of minor hockey has changed significantly over the past number of years with the addition of more professional instruction at younger ages.
And he said players and their families have to be cautious and weigh all factors before making decisions for their son’s advancement.
“Sometimes, you have to be a little bit careful that this (consulting a player) is something that’s developmental in nature and is in fact a truism, because sometimes people’s singular experiences are exactly that and not broad enough,” Gallagher said. “I don’t want to discourage anyone from taking a role in this, but I do think it’s neat that a player who has played in our league is working as a consultant.”
On the subject of having an agent at a young age, Gallagher said they are an important part of a player’s development.
“But they are ultimately in it for the business side of the game,” Gallagher said. “And good business for them is player development.
“Agents are grabbing players who are younger and younger simply to secure their influences over them at an earlier stage, which makes their services less accurate because they are further away from the time when true agent representation is required,” he said.
“The first time a player needs an agent is when they are in a program that has them living away from home and need a voice other than a parent to communicate with providers to ensure there’s good balance for the player.
“Is it right or wrong for agents getting involved at younger and younger ages? That’s probably not for me to judge. But I can certainly say that the true purpose of an agent is to negotiate contracts and secure professional relationships with professional teams. And that’s more disconnected at an earlier age.”
What young players should strive to achieve along with their development in the game is a sense of balance in their life, Gallagher said.
“They (players) put in so much work preparing that they need to smelling the roses along the way,” he said.
Part of that, for Low, is keeping the expectations of young players realistic.
“That’s a huge part. Where I am targeting, it’s the top bantam kids (13 - 14-year-olds),” he said. “Obviously, they all want to play junior hockey. But you have to remain realistic.
“If I talk to 100 kids, maybe one will play in the NHL, and 10 may play major junior. But at the same time, it’s extremely difficult to tell how a 14-year-old is going to pan out in their next four years.”