Trying to climb the ranks from childhood to the NHL obviously isn’t easy, as it takes ample skill, dedication, and luck, in nearly equal measures. It’s adorable to act like the most skilled players always find a way, or that someone can’t make it without hardcore dedication, because in reality, there are great players who were unjustly cut and denied opportunities, and others born with tremendous talent who make it despite not caring all that much about hard work, let alone the game itself.
So with only a handful of elements in your control, you’d think the biggest, most obvious hurdle to climb would be your opponent: be better than them, get noticed, and climb on up. And as much as that’s what everyone says - because it would be anarchy in the dressing room if you admitted otherwise - the truth is your biggest opponent is actually the guy in the stall beside you. And the one beside that, and the one on the other side, and all the way around the room.
Fact is, opportunity is the most essential aspect of the aspiring hockey player’s needs. You can be an all-world talent, but if you’re stuck on the bench or dragging around a couple of donkey linemates, it’s going to be tough to impress anyone. So, you have to be better than the guy beside you, first and foremost.
The problem with these “passive opponents” - or “teammates” as they’re alternatively known - being your biggest hurdle, is that ice time ain’t no meritocracy. Power play time isn’t given to the most talented players, and the most effective players aren’t given the best linemates or the most minutes.
Those things go to the best players … in your coaches eyes.
It’s remarkable how many players are oblivious to this, which fortunately makes those guys the easiest to sashay past on the way up the depth chart while they slack off in practice. You’re being evaluated every day, particularly in the first half of the season before the lines and general lineup really begins to crystallize, so everything you do - whether it’s lifting weights with the team, working hard when your team is being blown out, or blocking the shot of a Shea Weber-esque D-man - can all push your career further than just the actual plays made in those particular moments.
It’s not as bad these days, but it was a major reason why you saw so many fights late in games in past years. Most commentators tell fans the reason for that was “the game is out of hand, so now the players can settle old scores,” when the real reason is “the game is out of hand, scoring a goal is hard as hell, so fighting will be a decent way to show coach I still care and haven’t given up.” Nobody wants a quitter.
Whatever it is you do to win the affection of your coach, it’s crucial. Getting power play time can inflate your stats, which can alter the perception of you as a player early in the season. Those inflated stats can lead to better linemates, which leads to more exponential stat growth. Seasons tend to snowball in either direction. Suddenly scouts are looking at the numbers, and going “we should probably look at this Smith kid, he’s off to a great start,” and you’ve given yourself the opportunity to be seen, which is a necessary step to further climb the league ladder.
And none of that even mentions how far the experience gained in those extra minutes - on special teams, and in the biggest minutes of the closest games - goes towards your own development. Coaches wield a lot of power over your career, man.
Things eventually settle down as the season moves on, so you can let your focus shift towards team goals, but it takes awhile. We all start out with our own goals, not knowing what lies ahead, so there’s no shame in working towards individual goals. The idea isn’t romantic, but it’s reality.
If you hope to move on up, start with the depth chart on your own team.