Novice ice hockey players in classes largely have the same goal: they want to get good enough to play. People buy all the equipment, work on their skills and ultimately want to get on a team. The sandbagger — a person of a much high skill level who sneaks into lower skill-level games — is a problem that beginners will run into eventually. The question is: how do you keep sandbaggers out of your league?
I watched a local novice league at American Heartland ice rink start up and go through its first three months of games. I got on board with the league to run the scoreboard and watched all of the games from that angle. The league was intended for true adult novice players, most of whom have less than a year of playing experience. This is a first team for a many of the skaters while some have had a lapse of many years since they have played the sport.
The novice league started out with four teams and doubled in size to eight teams by the next round because word-of-mouth had traveled that the league was legitimate. The first round players let others know that the league was what it advertised to be, a genuine adult novice league. The new entity was thus vetted in the local hockey community.
Players want ice time, and more advanced players routinely dip into leagues below their skill level. An acquaintance of mine who played on her college team advised me that this skill-level raiding is common. I was warned that the guys who do it just want to brag that they got four goals in a game and have no conscience about the fact that they are lighting up players that just recently began playing.
How to deal with this problem has been on my radar for the past few months. I have learned that there needs to be a strategy in place because you can’t take people at their word for how well they do or do not play. The 3 steps that appear to have worked for the league so far are these:
1.) Prevention is the best medicine. Players who wanted to join the league needed to attend an evaluation skating event. An hour of ice time was provided by the rink on different dates. Potential players came at no cost to themselves to apply for the league. Each person was assigned a number; the number was linked to their name on a list, and we placed players on a black or white team so there was an even number of players to each side. Computer printing numbers on large recipe cards, using a hole punch and some safety pins worked fine for players who did not have a numbered jersey. They just had to pin a card onto the front and back of their jerseys.
Team captains and referees served to evaluate players on a scale of 1 to 4 with the higher number reflecting more skilled players. Potential players skated various drills and did a scrimmage. The group of team captains and referees ranked players based on observation and came up with a consensus on where each player seemed to be in terms of skill. Players too good to be in a novice league are screened out. This system also allows the team captains to draft players for their teams in a fair way and get choices of players ranging between a 1 and 4 rating.
2.) No “100% guarantees” are given after acceptance to a team. Removing players is expressed as an option that can be exercised. New players with a high skill level joining the league are advised that if they misrepresented themselves in the evaluation skate, they will be refunded their money and be asked to leave if enough people vote them out. This resolves the problem of a player that sandbags the evaluation skate but is truly well qualified to play at a higher skill level.
It is harder to gauge borderline players: people who were rated as very strong skill level 4 players and who may somewhat exceed the skill levels of the league. Borderline players who could be a highly skilled novice / D level player or a lower level C level player are harder to rank. Teams will have –and need– some better skilled players. The overall goal is to have a balance where no one team or individual player is overpowering the others.
Voting out a player as an option to be exercised if needed is the second line of defense behind hosting the evaluation skate events. The overall integrity of the league is put as a priority over individuals. Sandbaggers sneaking in or borderline players who would benefit from a more challenging league can be removed.
3.) Set rosters are a rule. Life happens and people miss games. They have to be someplace else, get sick or maybe hurt, go on vacations, have social obligations. The “buddy system” of players calling someone they know to fill in is nixed. It’s just too easy for a guy to call a buddy who played for his high school or college team. All the assurances of how he’s “not that good” and has not played in years usually wind up being malarkey. Sandbaggers lie their butts off. People who are trying to get their buddy who plays really well onto their novice league bench to score a lot of goals for their team also lie their butts off.
If a team is skating with a short bench and needs some substitute players, there is an existing list of alternate players available. Alternate players attended the evaluation skate event and are approved to play. They are usually players who signed up too late or there was not room for them because the teams filled up. Some were just not able to commit to all of the dates the teams played. Substitute players can also be borrowed from existing teams within the league. Some line ups may get a minor shuffle from time to time but still be within the same skill level.
Sports are competitive, and people want to try and get an edge on the competition. Nipping ringers in the bud is necessary. That means no one gets to call up Cousin Jimmy who played in college and slip him onto the bench. By keeping to set rosters and using only approved alternates, a cohesive league is maintained.
Getting a system in place that worked was a trial and error effort by a number of people. Things went a lot smoother the second time around thanks to the learning curve from the first round of games. Seeing where the problems were within the league and figuring out how to solve them was a process. The players, volunteers, referees and team captains who cared about the league existing and surviving put their personal time into making the league work. Now eight teams are excited to roll out and play the next three months and test themselves against each other.
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Filed under: Advice