(Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2018, issue of The Hockey News. It has been edited and updated for online purposes.)
Being a rookie in the NHL means proving you can skate, score and defend with the best players on the planet – but the hockey itself might be the easy part for young prospects. Life in The Show is a whirlwind and because of that, franchises have to make sure their newest players get accustomed to being professionals both at the rink and away from it.
“It can be a big culture shock,” said Rich Peverley, the player development co-ordinator for the Dallas Stars. “A lot of kids have to go through some big life-learning lessons. Getting a driver’s license, paying for insurance, paying rent…these are things kids haven’t gone through. The closer you prepare those kids to living on their own, cooking on their own and paying their bills, the closer they are to being comfortable in hockey.”
And it’s a process that is different for every player. Some European players are living on their own by the time they’re 15 or 16, because they’ve been playing on men’s teams overseas. Major junior kids live with billet families, while college players have dorm life as their experience. The New Jersey Devils have a group of rookies this season and they all live in the same apartment complex, so it’s close to a dorm situation. According to Devils coach John Hynes, the team’s veterans have volunteered to have rookies live with them, but the club doesn’t force it. This concept is common practice in the NHL, with Matt Moulson taking in Jack Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon living in Jean-Sebastian Giguere’s basement in Colorado, to give two prominent examples.
Originally, the Devils thought Nico Hischier would need a vet to live with, but the first overall pick from the 2017 draft proved to be mature beyond his years. And he doesn’t turn 19 until April. “We’ve had some kids who are more worldly than others and they’re fine on their own,” Hynes said. “This year’s group is pretty good.”
Guidance is still necessary, however. Nutrition and rest are two of the biggest keys to pro success and the NHL’s spoils must be managed. For example, good food is available to players at pretty much every turn. “There’s food everywhere,” Hynes said. “And some of the guys, every time you see them, they’re eating. We tell them, ‘You don’t have to eat just because it’s there.’ ”
Rest is key, too. It’s great that young players are filled with enthusiasm and want to work on their games as much as possible, but the grind of an 82-game season can catch up to a kid pretty fast if he doesn’t manage his practice time well. “It’s important for them to understand how gruelling it is,” Hynes said. “They’ve got so much energy and they don’t have much to do away from the rink, so you’ve got to kick them off the ice sometimes.”
Even the cherished NHL tradition of a pre-game nap is something that youngsters must realize can benefit them on a day-to- day basis. “You’re travelling a lot at night, you get in late at the hotel,” Peverley said. “You gotta have a bit of rest before the game.”
Off-days are also important. Peverley notes that when kids are in junior or college, their days are filled with classes when they’re not at the rink. At the pro level, that same player may be off the ice by early afternoon, with nothing else on the schedule the rest of the day. Managing that time and making good decisions about off-ice activities is vital. “You’re going from a kid who has been living with his parents and probably never paid for anything in his life to one making big sums of money,” Peverley said. “You want them to be put in the best environment to succeed.”
Life in the AHL can sometimes be even more challenging, with teams often playing three games in three days on weekends, so Peverley stresses the importance of having good veterans at that level to show young players the way.
For the kids themselves, the NHL is their dream, even if it can be a load to deal with initially. “You always have to be ready when it comes to games,” said Montreal Canadiens defenseman Victor Mete. “There’s no time off and you can’t have a bad game or else things won’t go well. You have to be prepared for tomorrow.”
Mete, who surprised by earning a spot on the Habs blueline in training camp, has been living with his mom in Montreal, so he has a safety net. He also praised the team’s veterans for treating him like a regular right off the bat. Kailer Yamamoto spent nine games with Edmonton in the first month of the season before the Oilers returned him to the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs and had a similar experience, with Leon Draisaitl and Jujhar Khaira being particularly helpful. “It was disappointing getting sent back, but it’s a learning curve, so you have to go back with an open mind,” Yamamoto said. “Getting a sneak peek makes you want to work that much harder, to get back up there and stay.”