ROCHESTER, Minn. -- Chris Ratzloff writes a list of questions on a whiteboard in the Rochester Grizzlies locker room at the start of each season:
What’s your dream Division I school?
What are some other Division I schools you like?
What’s your Dream Division III school?
What are a few other D-III schools you like?
If you were to go on to play club hockey in college, what schools would you want to play for?
“I have the players write down their answers, then we talk about them together,” said Ratzloff, in his second season as the head coach of the Grizzlies, Rochester’s North American 3 Hockey League team. “I ask them ‘do you want to play competitively (in college) or just for fun?’ As the season goes on those answers might change from wanting to play club hockey to wanting to play Division III hockey, or a kid might be happy playing for a really good club team if it’s a school he wants to go to.
“One of our jobs as coaches is to help them dream, but also to be clear what their realistic goals should be. Then it’s easier as the season goes on to say ‘you need to do more to reach your goal’ or ‘you’re doing fine.’”
That’s the balance that junior hockey coaches attempt to strike — piecing together a winning team while still allowing players to showcase their abilities to college scouts and coaches.
It’s what makes the college recruiting process in men’s hockey so unique from other sports. Junior hockey is a middle ground for players, a place for them to mature as people and as athletes. Very few players jump directly from high school hockey to Division I college hockey.
It’s a balance that the Grizzlies have struck well during their two first two seasons as a franchise, and a balance that the Grizzlies’ big brother, the North American Hockey League’s Austin Bruins, have also mastered during their decade in existence.
In just two years, the Grizzlies have sent eight players on to Division III hockey and two more to high-level ACHA club teams. The Bruins, meanwhile, in 10 years have had 65 players advance to play Division I hockey and three — Christian Folin (Minnesota, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Montreal); CJ Smith (Buffalo) and Nico Sturm (Minnesota) — have played in the NHL.
“Number one, you have to have kids playing the right way to help them move on,” fourth-year Bruins head coach Steve Howard said. “That’s what junior hockey is; it’s the little details and intangibles that can make or break kids at our level.”
FIRST STEP IN THE PROCESS
Before junior hockey coaches can help a player move on to a college program, they first have to convince him to play for their team.
Junior coaches can acquire a player’s rights through their league’s draft, by trading for a player with another team in their league or a different junior league, or they can sign a player to a tender, which is essentially a contract between that player and team.
Junior teams also hold open tryout camps in the summer months to evaluate players who aren’t drafted or tendered.
For the Bruins, Howard said he relies heavily on the opinions of his assistant coaches Keegan Asmundson and Kenny Orlando — who left the team last month to take a head coaching job in another junior league, the United States Premier Hockey League — as well as the team’s head scout, Aaron Venasky.
“It’s all of us talking quite a bit about players,” Howard said of the Bruins’ evaluation and recruitment process. “Aaron will tell us if there are other teams that are in on a kid or what we need to do to make sure we can lock up a player — use a tender on him, a draft pick or if he’s a high risk to lose to a USHL team.”
Sometimes, Howard said, the use of a tender or a draft pick is a bit of a gamble — not necessarily a gamble that a player will pan out, but a gamble that, if the Bruins don’t sign or draft a player, another NAHL team will.
“We like to watch kids play in person (to evaluate them) if we can,” Howard said. “There are times when three other teams are trying to get a guy to sign and if (Venasky) gives him the stamp and we have to move on him tomorrow, I’ll ask Aaron ‘is it worth it? Do we have to offer now?’ and then we’ll move on the kid.
“We’re not always right. You miss on guys sometimes, but if you’re more right than wrong, you’ll have a pretty good hockey team.”
The scouting and recruiting process is a bit different at the NA3HL level for Ratzloff and Grizzlies assistant coach Mike Aikens. The Grizzlies and the Bruins are both owned by Mike Cooper and Craig Patrick, so the staffs share some information about potential players, and Ratzloff is heavily involved in the scouting process for the Grizzlies.
“I’m out watching a lot of high school games throughout the season and I’ll scout pre-draft camps for the Bruins and other teams,” said Ratzloff, who guided the Grizzlies to a 37-8-2 record and an NA3HL Central Division championship last season. “I’m trying to look for kids who could play for us immediately and also build a database of kids who are two or three years out.
“One advantage I have is coaching the HP15s in southern Minnesota — the Minnesota Hockey program — so I get to meet kids when they’re 14 or 15 years old. We kind of start identifying, is this a kid who might have potential down the road?”
CONNECTIONS ARE KEY
A player’s talent is what will first draw attention from college scouts. But a junior hockey coach advocating for his players can be the tipping point for many of those players to get a college offer.
Ratzloff, a Rochester John Marshall grad, played in the USHL, then had a four-year career in the early 1990s at Wisconsin-River Falls. He coached at the youth and high school levels for many years before taking the Grizzlies job. Aikens, his assistant coach, is also a JM grad and has been a head coach in the NAHL and in the top tier of junior hockey in the U.S., the USHL.
“We’re in a good position, a good location, with a team that’s established enough that college coaches want to come watch,” Ratzloff said. “I have good relationships with coaches at every level — USHL, NAHL, Division I, Division III — and that’s been very helpful.
“And (Aikens) has the amount of relationships that I have, times 100 or more. He knows somebody everywhere and is very well respected. He’ll say it might be crazy, but he’s not afraid to call a Division I coach about a kid we have here who belongs at a higher level. He has great ideas about how kids fit into college programs.”
NEWS: Defenseman Bacon Commits to Bethel University. Grizzlies captain Seth Bacon becomes the first player in team history to commit to an NCAA program. Congrats, Seth! #OnceAGrizzlyAlwaysAGrizzly https://t.co/UTjd1k2JnG pic.twitter.com/oExtbbC0j7— Rochester Grizzlies (@RochesterGrizz) May 1, 2019
Ratzloff and Aikens will also reach out to college coaches in Minnesota and Wisconsin — two states that are hotbeds for Division III hockey — when the Grizzlies have a big home game or home series approaching. They want their players to be scouted while playing against the top competition in the NA3HL.
“Our goal is to move kids on to wherever and whatever that is,” Ratzloff said. “It might be the NAHL — I’m doing that right now, talking to ‘NA’ coaches every day about kids who could fit their systems. It’s also trying to help our guys navigate so that they’re not just bouncing in the summer from camp to camp to camp (with NAHL teams). We want to find their legitimate possibilities and maybe go be really good at those two or three camps.”
The same goes for Howard and his coaching staff in Austin. Their goal is to build a winning team, but also to help all of their players move on and achieve their goals of playing at higher levels. The Bruins’ coaches make phone calls and send emails to college coaches on a daily basis during the season.
Like Ratzloff, Howard also strives to be straight-up with his players about their opportunities to advance. He said junior players need to visit colleges, talk to players and coaches at those schools, and come to their own conclusion.
“Everybody wants to play Division I,” Howard said. “Some kids will be ready, others won’t be for that environment. (We) walk through all the pros and cons with our kids but we don’t tell them where to go or what to do.
“I always tell kids ‘imagine going there and having a career-ending injury your first year. Can you still see yourself going to school there?’ Then talk with your parents … I’m always here to bounce ideas off, but the last thing I want is for them to feel pressured into going somewhere.
“It’s ultimately each kid’s decision about what’s best for him.”