USA Hockey’s Player Development Program, according to its website, selects and trains men’s and women’s hockey teams to go to Olympic, National, National Junior and Select levels of international competition.
Every youth hockey player in the country is eligible to try out. The only requirements are that they be U.S. citizens, registered with USA Hockey and in the appropriate age group.
The U.S. Under-18 team that plays an exhibition game against the University of Maine most years is part of the National Team Development Program.
Selection of the teams always starts at the state level, said Jeff Thompson, director of the Maine Amateur Hockey Association.
“Each state is required to have an open tryout [to determine who will go to the New England Festival],” said Thompson, who has been involved with the Maine Amateur Hockey Association for more than 10 years.
At district festivals around the country, players are evaluated again. Maine is a member of the New England District. The best players from each district festival go to the National Festival, where the national team players are chosen.
Maine tryouts are taking place at the Colisee in Lewiston. The tryouts started Sunday with the Select 12/13 girls, U14/15 girls, U16/17 girls, the Select 16 boys and Select 17 boys. They continue this Sunday, again at the Colisee, for the Select 12, 13, 14 and 15 teams. The age groups are determined by birth year: 2000 for U-12, 1999 for U-13, and so on.
If more than 60 sign up for a particular age-group session, it’s be broken into two side-by-side sessions.
“They’ll bring back the best of each session, about 36 kids, [for a final cut],” said Thompson. Second sessions will be Jan. 22 at the Colisee.
Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island each select a “team” of 15 skaters and two goalies to go to the New England Festival. Massachusetts has so many players that the state is its own district. The country is divided into 11 districts.
The U-12s and U-13s go through tryouts and the district festival, but no further.
“We try to get them familiar with the process,” said Thompson. “That way, the next year, if they make it, they know what to expect.”
The two older groups of girls don’t send full teams to the New England Festival. Each state is allotted a number of spots as determined by the New England girls directors.
For the teams, Maine tries to pick nine forwards and six defensemen to accompany two goalies, said Thompson. Alternates also are chosen in case a player finds he or she can’t go to festival, which rotates each year among the states. Vermont is this year’s host and the event will be held March 22-25.
The state teams play four games each, but winning is not the point. No champion is declared, no standings are kept. Players are judged individually on the skills they display.
For the Select 16 boys and Select 17 boys, it goes a step further. The 85 players from the five states are pooled together and split into five teams.
After four days of work, the New England representatives are selected for the National Festivals. Player selections are based solely on performances at the festivals.
The evaluators are primarily hockey coaches, including some from NCAA Division I and Division III collegiate programs and others from USA Hockey.
“Ninety-nine percent of them are coaching somewhere,” said Thompson.
At the end of the district festival, evaluators also choose players to invite to New England District summer camps, except for the U-16 boys and U-17 boys, whose camps are incorporated into the district festival. There is no camp for the U-12 boys.
“It’s very strenuous, but it’s a great camp,” said Thompson. “Everyone should [feel] honored to go.”
The cost is $40 for the state tryout, and another $180 for those that make the state teams. For the camps incorporated into the festival, the 2011 cost was $350. The price for the summer camps is $500-$600, depending on the age group and length of the camp.
Thompson doesn’t want players or their parents to be dissuaded by the cost.
“We try to make sure everyone who wants to go gets to go,” he said.
If players don’t make festival one year, they are welcome to try again another year. Players who make it one year are not guaranteed a spot in subsequent years.
“Kids develop at different ages,” Thompson said. “This is about skill development. I try to remind everybody of that.”