Successful tryout tips from a longtime local high school coach

Rob Malstrom begin his 20th season on New Trier bench, his alma mater

By Ross Forman

Rob Malstrom is set for his 20th season coaching, though he’s mostly been on the bench for a team no one wants to play on.

At least during tryouts.

Malstrom, you see, is the head coach for New Trier Blue, the school’s second varsity. Obviously all Trevians want to skate for New Trier Green – not Blue.

“The dynamic of our program has certainly changed over the last several years and that has caused me to have to change my approach to coaching Blue,” said Malstrom, whose New Trier coaching run also has included time leading White, JV and all spring teams. “Hockey needs to be fun for these boys and I try my best to make sure they are having fun throughout the season. You can still work hard and have fun at the same time, which is what we try to do.”

Malstrom played for the Wilmette Braves, New Trier Green (1991-94), and then the University of Illinois (1994-98). Sure, he still skates in adult leagues regularly, but coaching it Malstrom’s market.

He has coached New Trier teams to three White Division state championships – with the school’s third varsity team.

Malstrom also has coached for the Wilmette Braves in the past.

So yes, Malstrom has seen plenty of tryouts over the years.

“More often than not, it is very obvious to the coaches watching tryouts who the players are that worked hard over the summer and which ones did nothing,” he said. “Players do not have to skate all summer, but by the time they get to the high school level, they should be training their bodies off the ice throughout the off-season. If you want to make a certain team, then you need to do more than show up for tryouts. Put in whatever work is necessary to show the coaches, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that you deserve to be on that team you want to make. It is the player’s job to make the team, not the coach’s job to put him there.”

Malstrom’s tryout tips:

  • DO skate hard on and off the ice during scrimmages.
  • DON’T look up in the stands after you make a good play to see if the coaches were watching.
  • DO the little things that coaches like to see: backcheck, play smart positionally, and pass the puck when the situation dictates that it should be passed.
  • DON’T try to do too much on every shift; play the game as it develops on the ice and find opportunities to make an impact and dictate, or change, the game to your advantage.

When asked what will get a player instantly noticed during tryouts, Malstrom said: Score goals. “Coaches love players who can put the puck in the net,” he said.

Malstrom added, “Since I don’t always get the top players, I look for other positive attributes as well, (such as), which players are willing to take hits to make plays (and) who are the players doing the dirty work in the corners so that someone else can get the glory of scoring goals? Who has an intensity about their game that, while it isn’t translating onto the scoreboard during tryouts, (he) may be a player I can work with to help them succeed? Certain coaches look for certain things, so don’t be afraid to ask a coach what he or she would like to see you doing out on the ice to make the team. There are many ways to be noticed – remember, the coaches are always watching, so give your best effort all the time.”

Malstrom said there definitely have been past Trevians who have who have shined in tryouts – “and that’s what makes tryouts so exciting,” he said.

“During the three- to five-month offseason, especially at the high school level, there can be dramatic physical changes for players, as well as changes in maturity and approach to the game. Some years I have seen players I coached or watched on a different team the season before show up to tryouts in the fall looking like completely different players,” Malstrom said. “That’s why it is important for each player to prepare for tryouts, whether you think you are already on the team or that you have several players to beat out to make it. You never know what can happen at tryouts.”

So, what if you don’t make ‘the team’ during a tryout?

If the player is not a senior, Malstrom has a discussion with the player about why he started playing hockey in the first place. Often, when the player realizes it is because he enjoys playing the sport, competing, and being around his teammates, and not the status of what team they make, they decide to stay and play.

For seniors, it might be their final season of organized, competitive hockey in their lives, outside of adult leagues later in life, and they often realize that they should not give up that opportunity because they won’t ever get it again. “I have never had a senior come to me at the end of the season and say that they regretted playing. Hockey is fun,” Malstrom said.

“If the player is a not a senior, we focus our talk more about their goals and how to achieve them. If they want to make that higher team next year, what do they need to do between now and then, and how can playing on my team help them achieve their goals. My hope is that those players recognize and embrace the challenge set out before them, rising to take it on and show everyone what they can achieve. I want to see my players move up and make a higher team, not just because it reflects well on myself as a coach in developing those players, but because of the joy and pride it elicits in each one of them.”

New Trier and other schools annually have players who want to quit hockey after tryouts – because they did not make a certain team.

“If (the player wants to quit) simply for the status of what team you make, then maybe you are playing for the wrong reason,” Malstrom said. “If you play because you love the sport and the camaraderie with your teammates, then you can find happiness on any team you play on. Embrace the challenge of improving your game so that there is no doubt you belong on that higher team next year. For those who work hard, there is always opportunity to move up and achieve more in hockey and in almost every aspect of life. But, for those who choose to quit, there is not. Don’t be a quitter. Quitting is a bad habit and it not something you should start so early in life.”

Ross Forman has written about Illinois high school hockey for more than 15 years and is the only sportswriter to have covered Illinois High School hockey every year during that stretch. He played locally and then at Indiana University before becoming a referee. Ross was a referee for the State Championship game several years ago at the United Center. Contact Ross by email at

Categories: Advice, High School, Hockey Headlines, Leadership in the News, Ross Forman's High School Hockey

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