We are again in the midst of the “camp season”. From May to July most Junior organizations are holding their prospect/pre-draft and main camps where they select their roster for next season’s team. The USHL Main Camps are mainly held in June whereas most of the NAHL teams have theirs in July, and Tier III, depending on the league, from May until August. As most European players are not familiar with these camps and, accordingly, have lots of questions, I thought it was a good time to answer some of the questions. Do I have to attend a camp? Which one: prospect, predraft or main camp? Can you just sign up? How are my chances as a free agent of getting a roster spot? These are just a few of the questions players and parents have.
It is important to understand two things: 1) camps are a welcomed source of income for the teams its part of their business model and 2) the 30 player roster gets selected at the main camp (USHL, NAHL). These players report to training camp at the beginning of the season where (over a few weeks) the roster is reduced to 23 players.
Who is invited to the camps? All players who are still eligible from last year’s team (and the coaches want back), players who signed tenders, players who were drafted and free agents/invites.
How do these camps work? Depending on the leagues and teams (USHL, NAHL) between around 100 to plus 160 players report to the main camp! They will be assigned to between 4 and 8 teams and play a minimum of 3 to 4 games in 2 days. Then the first cut happens reducing the number of players by about 50 %. After another game or two, the field is reduced to two teams which then play the “final”. Out of these players the final 30 player roster is selected.
How are my chances of getting a roster spot as a free agent? This depends on a lot of factors and there is no straight forward answer. All the teams have a scouting department (USHL full-time, NAHL full- and part time) which watches hundreds of games during the season, playing an important role in selecting the players in the draft and offering tenders. This means that by the opening of the main camp the coaches have a pretty good idea about their 30 men roster. To come to the main camp and win a spot as a free agent, a player has to have an outstanding camp and really stand out throughout camp. So the chance does exist but it is pretty minimal. With that being said, every year free agents do make teams but the number is relatively small.
How is it with imports? The number of foreign players is limited to four in the USA Hockey sanctioned leagues (Tier I, II and III). Consequently, the battle for roster spots is fierce. It is important to do the home work i.e. know the needs of the teams based on their last year’s roster and talks with their coaching and/or scouting staff. Based on that information you get an understanding of a player’s chances (provided you judge the player’s abilities objectively) and can decide if it is worthwhile to make the investment (a few thousand dollars counting flight, camp fee, food and lodging) of attending a camp.
Do I have to attend camp to get a roster spot? Basically yes. There are always exceptions. May be for players with a proven track record (and may be some scouting reports and video) which show they will almost certainly become a top player in that league.
Are the above questions/answers applicable to all the Leagues? No. Mainly to USHL (Tier I) and NAHL (Tier II). Most Tier III teams also have camps and showcases, depending on the league, and usually would like to see all their potential players participate. With imports with a proven track record (as above), they may make exceptions.
In summary, it is possible to make a team as a free agent attending a main camp. But you need a good understanding of the teams needs, including the correct assessment of the player’s potential, to select the right organization where the player has the best opportunity to get onto the roster.