Unlike football and basketball, hockey is not a sport you can pick up late. The basic skills take years to hone and the trail that might eventually lead to a Division I scholarship is a long and expensive route.
While it is not uncommon for a player who is athletic and tough to first come out in high school, having never played organized football before, and still play the game to a high level, that is virtually impossible in hockey.
In basketball, you can play on the playgrounds and schoolyards throughout your youth. You can play in pick-up games against top players. In hoops you can develop your talents in solitude through practice. A short indoctrination into a team situation can have a talented player ready to be college-bound (even NBA-bound) in a short turnaround. Again, that is virtually impossible in hockey.
The major essential skill — skating — doesn’t come without hours of practice over years. The sooner you can get on the ice, the better. Ice time doesn’t come cheap, since you are always paying something to someone. Even if it is the noontime hour-long free skate at the local MDC, someone is reaching into the wallet to pay for it.
Take the case of Boston University’s outstanding freshman forward, Peter MacArthur. His journey to Commonwealth Avenue was not unlike the trek many D-I players have taken.
“There is just this incredible picture, at three years old, of me in skates and a helmet on [his mother's] beautiful hardwood floors,” MacArthur recalled.
Growing up in Clifton Park, N.Y., MacArthur, now 19, played Mites and was on the travel team at ages five and six.
“It was a long season, from September to the end of March or the beginning of April,” he said. “Usually we had one practice and two games a week.”
This also doesn’t come without a charge. Town-level youth leagues may charge $750-$850 for registration. Then you have to be outfitted with skates, sticks, pads, etc. Put the cost at roughly $1250 for the season. If your youth hockey organization is fair-minded, it might allow you to make installment payments. How does that stack up with the $50 you shell out for a son or daughter’s travel soccer team?
And you thought that $50 check hurt to write? Break out the plastic when it comes to youth hockey, folks.
As a player moves up the youth hockey ladder and starts to starts to stand out a bit, he might want to play for an independent team that travels on weekends to tournaments in Canada, or up to Lake Placid, N.Y., or wherever.
MacArthur started getting heavily into hockey when he was about 14 and played for the Junior Ice Hawks in Adirondack, N.Y. It is not uncommon for those independent, or elite youth hockey travel teams to cost $10,000-12,000 for the season. What with registration (mostly used for buying ice time), travel expenses and equipment, not to mention meals, it can run into quite an amount.
“I played midgets one year while I was still playing high school,” said McArthur. “I must have played 100 games that year with 70 in Midget Triple-A and 30 in high school.”
Yes, high school. Not everyone can walk into D-I right out of high school, let alone a public one. But MacArthur played two years at Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, a public high school, before going to the Northwood School in Lake Placid.
Last year MacArthur played for the Waterloo (Iowa) Blackhawks in the United States Hockey League, the country’s premier junior league.
“That had to run $50,000,” said MacArthur of the year in Waterloo. “You had to pay for the buses and hotels because we were traveling a lot.”
MacArthur, who also played high school soccer and tennis, was talented enough to earn a scholarship to BU, and the investment made by him and his family paid off.
Of course that is the positive side of this expensive journey. There are plenty of players who went through the same process as MacArthur did and it didn’t pay off … literally.
“We had some great players in Clifton Park Youth Hockey,” said MacArthur. “But, of all those players, one other kid (Tony Marinello) is playing college hockey right now at [Division III] Brockport State.”
For the other side of the coin, there is “John,” a father of two hockey players who lives in a town along the seacoast of New Hampshire. His kids took a similar path to MacArthur, playing for a town team and then branching out to an independent youth program and then the Granite State Stars of the Eastern Junior League, based in New England.
That trail was littered with Visa and MasterCard receipts. John, a man of modest means, was trying to do the best hockey-wise for his sons and give them every opportunity to advance in the game. He would go broke striving for that.
Both of his sons made the commute from New Hampshire to play at Matignon High School in Cambridge, Mass. Matignon is a top-ranked team in Massachusetts High School hockey and habitually makes a run at the state championship in Massachusetts Division I . But, they never played D-I college hockey. They each played D-III hockey, getting some financial aid, but mostly footing the bill themselves.
John, the father, was forced to declare bankruptcy. That is the flip side of the road many take in pursuit of their college hockey dream.
“If you want to make it you have to do it. It is definitely worth it if you make it,” said MacArthur. “There is a lot of sacrifice that is made by not only you, but your support system, your coaches, and family.”