How to play college hockey: What you need to know

How to play college hockey: What you need to know

Are you (or is one of your kids) wondering how to play college hockey? There are NCAA scholarships on offer for talented hockey players, so what do you need to do to get your hands on one? Here, we have exclusive information from hockey scouts, detailing what they look for in young players and how to secure NCAA scholarships for hockey players.

NCAA hockey scholarships: How it works

The process for obtaining a scholarship to play college hockey is quite different from any other college sport. For one, the average age of a hockey freshman in college is 20 years of age. After high school, most players do two years of junior/prep hockey before they will be seriously considered by a college coach.

Currently, there are 128 men’s hockey programs, with 58 of these competing at NCAA DI level, and 70 at NCAA DIII level. In terms of scholarships, each NCAA DI program has up to 18 scholarships per team. For DIII programs, teams use other forms of scholarship and financial aid for their players.

how to play college hockey

ACHA Collegiate Hockey- an alternative to NCAA

The American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) is a college ice hockey association. The ACHA's purpose is to be an organization of collegiate affiliated non-varsity programs, which provides structure, regulates operations, and promotes quality in collegiate ice hockey. The ACHA currently has three men's and two women's divisions and includes approximately 450 teams from across the United States. Teams offer few athletic scholarships and typically receive far less university funding. The ACHA offers an opportunity for college hockey programs that struggle with large budgets and Title IX issues, as an alternative to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) financial structure. 

What hockey scouts look for in young players

This information is courtesy of hockey scout Kyle Woodlief, provided to USA TODAY.

When scouts look at young players, there are many different facets to be considered when determining each prospect's relative merits and making final evaluations. There are at least 8-10 basic elements that scouts are looking for when breaking down strengths and weaknesses in a player. For defensemen and forwards, the major categories graded are:

  1. Skating ability: Scouts will assess the speed, power of stride, first-step quickness, and acceleration of players. They will also evaluate a player’s balance, lateral mobility, and ability to turn and change directions quickly.
  2. Size and strength: This is another important metric for scouts, though they also understand that some players “play bigger” than their size, and some shorter players are powerfully built and deceptively strong for their height.
  3. Puck handling ability:  Here, the scout is assessing whether a player can handle the puck in traffic. Can they make moves with it at top speed, or do they have to slow down in order to make moves? Does the player pass crisply and accurately?
  4. Shot and scoring ability: The ability to score is of course important, and natural scorers can be a real asset. Scouts assess whether the player has a hard shot, and how accurate they are. Are their shots low and consistently on net? Are they a natural sniper; does the player finish off chances around the net?
  5. Hockey sense: How are the player's instincts? Do they instinctively make the right play in all three zones? Do they read and anticipate developing plays?
  6. Competitiveness: Does the player win the 1-on-1 battles for loose pucks? Do they get involved in the traffic areas, drive to the net, move men out of the crease, etc.?
  7. Leadership: Do teammates and coaches rely on the player to make big plays at key moments in the game? Are they out on the ice in all key situations? Do they take charge of situations?
  8. Poise and composure: Does the player hurt their team with penalties? Do they get rattled after being hit? Are they calm in tense situations?
  9. Productivity: At the end of the day, how important and valuable is the player to their team? Do they contribute to the team winning games? Do they put points up on the board consistently, fight, or perform their role on the team efficiently?
  10. Academics: Showing proficiency in your schoolwork will significantly increase your chances of an NCAA scholarship. Having a low GPA could be the difference maker for the coach. College hockey requires the ability to perform at a high level both in the classroom and on the ice.

How to play college hockey if you’re a goaltender


how to get a college hockey scholarship


For goaltenders, hockey scouts are looking for a slightly different set of skills, though the desired qualities of competitiveness, leadership, and poise remain the same. Skating ability is very important. Common misconception about goaltenders is that they do not have to be good skaters. This is not true, in fact the goalies should be some of the best skaters on the ice. All the same skating metrics apply for goalies. Additionally, scouts will look at agility- foot and leg quickness of the player, stickhandling skills, flexibility, and hand speed. They will also assess the player’s anticipation skills, reflexes, and how good they are at controlling rebounds.

NHL Scouts: What skills do NHL scouts look for in young players?

Ron Honigan, who has more than 25 years of NCAA and NHL scouting experience, explains that there are usually six things he focuses on when evaluating a young player:

  • Skating: The player must be an above-average skater.
  • Skill level: Specifically, Ron looks at the player’s puck handling ability, and how well they can pass and receive a puck using both sides of the stick. They must also be able to regularly get their shots on net.
  • Hockey sense: How creative is the player? Do they see everybody on the ice? Does the player think quickly and make the right decisions when they have the puck?
  • Grit: This comes down to finishing checks, winning battles for contested pucks, driving the net, standing up for a teammate, and getting pucks out of the zone by taking a hit.
  • Competitiveness: Ron believes there are three levels of competitiveness in players - those who always bring it, those who sometimes bring it, and those who seldom bring it. As Ron explains, “The one thing that every player can control is his/her effort. There is no excuse for not blocking a shot, outskating an opponent to a loose puck, and not playing with fire and brimstone. Even if you are the most talented player on your team....but if you don't compete on a consistent basis you will never get very far in the long term.”
  • Role: What function is the player going to provide to the hockey club? Ron believes that for young players, defining themselves as a player is very important! What do they do better than everybody else? For example, are they a playmaker, a finisher, a checker…?
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    What are the top traits hockey scouts look for?

    Dan MacDonald, a professional coach with 30+ years of experience in the NCAA, NHL, WHL, ECHL, and AHL gives another perspective on what makes a young hockey player successful and how to play college hockey successfully:

    When selecting players for his team, Dan says there are three key elements he’s looking for:

    • Skating ability: Specifically, Dan is assessing the player’s quickness (acceleration), top speed (forward and backward, depending on the player’s position), and one of the big keys - agility and the ability to move laterally while moving fast.
    • Passion/competitiveness: If you don't compete, you aren't an athlete. If you lose the puck, go back and get it immediately. Forecheck and backcheck. Be determined and work hard. Compete to the best of your ability. When you lose, it should hurt.
    • Hockey sense: Dan defines this as the ability to make something happen. Did the player make a positive difference in the game for their team? The player needs to be noticeable, not invisible, and give their best effort whenever they are on the ice.

    Final thoughts on how to play college hockey successfully

    As you can see from the advice provided by professional scouts and coaches above, there’s a lot of overlap in terms of the skills and traits they are looking for in the brightest and best young players. While it’s extremely important to focus on improving your technical skills and skating ability, players with pure passion, a highly competitive, driven mindset, and hockey smarts can also go a long way to securing an NCAA or ACHA scholarship to play college hockey.

    Written by Ron Bulloch

    Ron Bulloch hails from a small town in Western, Manitoba. Ron has dedicated the past 40 years of his life to learning, perfecting, and coaching skating mechanics from the grass roots to pro athletes. He’s achieved his Level 5 Masters in Coaching with USA Hockey and has been a keynote speaker around the world on skating philosophy, going on to invent several sport-specific training products, including the PowerSkater. Ron was inducted in the Indiana Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.