Every year European players and parents approach me in late spring, early summer, looking for an opportunity to play Junior Hockey in the US. While it is not impossible to find a team relatively late in the selection process, it becomes very hard. This leads to the question when should I start exploring my options to play Junior Hockey in the USA?
The answer: you should start about one year before you want to come over! This means ideally in fall. That gives enough time to put together a player profile including game video etc. to start contacting potential teams and get some feedback about their interest.
Why do players wait until the last moment? In their last year of Junior eligibility in Switzerland they hope until the end for a contract in one of the two Swiss pro leagues. By that time, for most players if they make an honest evaluation of their potential (with their coaches) they should have a good understanding of what their chances are. At that point they can pursue their options concurrently in Switzerland and the US.
Of course I have to clarify what level of players I’m talking about. This pertains to players who have the potential of playing Tier I (U18/U20 Selection/extended roster) or Tier II (Elite A, key team players). There are plenty of opportunities to play Tier III (pay to play leagues). But there too, it behooves one to start early to get on the roster of a good team. See my previous post about Tier III.
The competition for roster spots in Tier I and II (both no pay leagues) is very fierce. By the time the teams have their try-out camps they already have a pretty good understanding how their team will look like for the coming season (returnees, tenders and drafts). Again, it is not impossible to get on a team that late. Every year some walk-ons, as player are called who are not part of the aforementioned categories, make the teams. To give you some perspective, in each camp there are probably around 60 players competing for a few spots!
Every year I see players ending up at a lower level (league or team) because they started late and were not familiar with the US hockey landscape and how it works.
The above does not apply for players who want to play Junior and then College hockey as they typically start exploring this path when they are around 16. Please read my previous post where I laid out the two options for Swiss players who intend to play NCAA hockey.