The difference between playing NCAA Division III and Division I hockey is the difference between pursuing hockey as a passion or a career. Between paying for college, or going on a scholarship. Between having the best resources at your fingertips, and the limited resources of a smaller school.
It’s a potentially life altering difference.
Yet, the path to arrive at either is strikingly similar.
Nearly every player at the junior A level—The level that precedes college, and the most common path to NCAA hockey—has made hockey a top priority.
They were all one of the best players in their hometown, guiding them to move away from home to pursue better competition.
They’ve all put in thousands and thousands of hours of work, approaching the 10,000 hour mark.
So why do some make the jump to the division I level, with greater prospects of a professional career, while others land in division III programs?
Fortunately, I’ve been able to work with both levels.
During the 2018-2019 season, I was the strength coach of the Vermont Lumberjacks, a junior hockey program in the Eastern Hockey League. The EHL is the leading junior league in division III commitments.
This summer, 2019, I interned under Devan McConnell, head strength coach and Head of Hockey Performance for the University of Massachusetts Lowell men’s hockey team. Umass Lowell competes in arguably the best conference in college hockey. They’ve posted three conference championships and an appearance in the Frozen Four—college hockey’s Final Four—in recent memory.
In my experience what separates the players at each level are a few key characteristics.
Difference #1: Coachability
My first day in Lowell I stepped into a weight room filled with the most physically intimidating group I’d ever seen. A room with NHL draft picks, and established college players.
Yet, they all listened to and implemented feedback excellently. Nobody, no matter how big or strong, scoffed or shied away from anything that could help them improve.
In fact, the most dominant athletes were the ones who went out of their way to ask questions.
I remember on the first week, a freshman, Matt Brown, kept asking me what I thought of his form and whether he should go up or down in weight, always seeking improvement.
After one workout, he went up to Devan and asked him a host of questions to improve his nutrition. The next day, what he could do to improve his speed. Not long after, his core strength. Soon, Devan deferred to mean to help “Brownie” with his extra work.
He seeks out feedback and improvement more than anybody I’ve ever seen.
One day, probably the biggest freak in the gym, Lucas Condotta—who makes 515 lb rear-foot elevated split squats look like he’s lifting a stick with two marshmallows on the end—was doing a landmine press, and every rep he only went half way up.
“Should I call him out on it?” I thought.
“Would he eat me if I did?”
“Would he come over and throw me through the wall?”
Who knows, but I knew he wasn’t getting much out of those landmines.
“Hey Dotter, can you get a full rep in?” I firmly asked with a grin.
He gave me a grin back, and proceeded to do each rep completely.
From then on, he would often give me a smirk and remind the boys to make sure we’re doing full ranges of motion.
“Hey remember full reps here boys, right Dave?”
They’re not only open to, but seek out feedback, leading to incremental improvements which over time lead to a pronounced athletic prowess.
If you want to improve exponentially, it starts with embracing the learning process.
Difference #2: Being on time
Every year at the start of the Vermont Lumberjacks season, the necessity of being on time was addressed.
Yet, inevitably, there were players with the habit of arriving to the rink within one minute of the time we needed to be there, often being a minute or two late.
It was not uncommon for the typically on-time to arrive late, especially as the season grinded into the brutal Vermont winter.
Even veterans—who knew better—would arrive late.
I was at Lowell for an entire summer. Nobody was ever late. Not once. It was never even cut close. Nobody strolled in at 10:12 for a 10:15 workout. At 10:00 nearly everybody was in the weight room ready to go.
If you want to get to the next level, start by being on time.
Difference #3: Physical shape
In sports, there are a profusion of variables you can’t control, but you can control your physical condition
It is a rule at Lowell for every player to be under 12% body fat during the season.
Amongst the Lumberjacks locker room, there’s a huge range of chubby guys, bamboo sticks, and guys in overall good shape. Overall I’d estimate half of them would pass the 12% test.
Of course, there is a genetic component to this. Certainly, many kids on UML have a predisposition to be muscular and lean, and all of them have a build more suited to hockey than many of the Lumberjacks.
But regardless of their genetic advantages, they still are in top physical condition.
To get there, you should be too.
Difference #4: Strength
Strength is the foundation of all athletic abilities.
Force = mass (weight) x acceleration
Therefore, more weight (strength) = more force
More force in a shorter period of time = more power
More power = More speed
The strength—pun intended—of this foundation separates good athletes from great athletes. At Umass Lowell, all of the upperclassmen (sophomores and up) are able to split squat at least 400 pounds, while many can do 500 pounds or more.
It’s not a surprise they also jump high, run fast, and skate fast, given their exceptional strength.
Build the foundation and you’ll always be able to add to it. But without it, what you build top will eventually be limited by the sturdiness of the foundation.
As the old proverb goes, you can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe.
We can’t ignore that many of the factors that go into becoming a better athlete are uncontrollable.
You could do everything right and not make it to the division I level.
It’s an elite level which not everybody should aspire to.
But, you can always pursue a better version of yourself.
You can develop good habits, like being on time and being coachable, that transfer over to all arenas of life.
You can become a better athlete, little by little, and reach the highest level you can. Maybe it’s the NHL, division III, or your high school team.
As Devan often inquires after workouts, “Raise your hand if you did something you’d never done before.”
When those hands go up, nobody cares where each guy fits on the depth chart.
Each individual is proud of themselves for improving.
And each teammate is proud of their brother, for his gain is their gain.