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Developing hockey players the right way

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I am a hockey guy that always keeps his mind open to new things. Especially today’s game as many aspects are evolving in comparison to when I played. The equipment is changing, ice time is about ten times the cost, and it seems parents are ever-more invested in the game. Some characteristics of hockey have actually improved but other pieces I am failing to truly understand.

Now I will be the first to admit everything USA Hockey does not always agree with me. From utilizing the blue pucks at the U8 Mite level to the selection of players for the World Junior Championship roster. Everybody is entitled to their opinion and that it was what this fine nation of the United States of America is founded upon – Freedom of Speech. After all it is the First Amendment.

Though if you really watch hockey and research the development of players it is becoming evident that the days of North American supremacy is over. Sure USA won gold at the 2013 WJC but it’s not like Canada and the US are alternating years of winning the top medal. There is much parity on the international scene. The European nations especially the likes of Sweden, Finland, and Russia have some of the most skilled players in the world. See exhibit A: Henrik & Daniel Sedin (Sweden), exhibit B: Mikko Koivu (Finland), and exhibit C: Pavel Datsyuk (Russia) for example. These players are only the beginning as they are already established players in the National Hockey League and also stars for the upcoming 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

But a whole influx of European players is coming across the pond to showcase their talents in juniors, the minors, and the big leagues. Just look at the percentage of NHL players by country today. Approximately 25% Europeans now comprise the league in in 2013-14 in comparison to just 8% thirty years ago during the 1983-84 season, according to QuantHockey.com. Now I’m not saying Patrick Kane (USA) and Sidney Crosby (Canada) are slouches and the governing bodies of USA Hockey and Hockey Canada are doing things wrong. In fact I respect USA Hockey’s initiative to advance the youth hockey player with the American Development Model (ADM).

The ADM program was employed after an extensive international study by USA Hockey of educators, child development experts, coaches from various sports, physiologists, and National Sports Federations. The ADM goal is to provide a defined systematic, building block approach in order to develop athletes starting from the earliest stages of participation, therefore increasing the athlete’s skill, enjoyment, and proficiency.

This is an aspect of hockey that I understand – the ADM. People are always resistant to change although this program is geared ultimately to develop the best possible athletes at all levels and this will assist in hockey players achieving the ultimate goal of playing in the NHL. Some people find it hard to believe because ADM seems to be falsely associated only with cross-ice games of the Red, White, & Blue program. It is beyond the Mite level. ADM goes beyond into nutrition, off-ice training to the age-appropriate player, and assisting coaches in cultivating hockey youths.

On the other hand, one aspect I find hard to comprehend today in American hockey is the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union). Not that I do not respect an organization for promoting the game and developing athletes in amateur sports, but the fact that AAU Hockey is hosting the inaugural U8 Mite and U10 Squirt Nationals this coming March in St. Paul, MN.

Believe me, when USA Hockey announced the deletion of the U12 Pee Wee Nationals, I immediately felt it was unnecessary and still to this day do not agree the decision. Personally, hockey players are competitive by nature and at age 12 and 13 they are beginning to mature into young adults, especially the serious and talented players at the Tier 1 level. The National tournament provides them the opportunity to enjoy a great hockey and lifetime experience whether they win or lose.

Yet this AAU event seems not so much about the players, but an opportunity to make money. Not only do teams need to pay a substantial entry fee the parents will also need to purchase insurance. Oh yeah, did I mention that teams from across the US will be traveling, lodging in the greater St. Paul/Minneapolis area over four to five days which is all in conjunction with a hockey expo.

OK, I understand everybody has to make a buck and a hockey exposition can be good for the game with the display of innovative products and ideas. But what I certainly cannot put my hands around is for 7-year olds playing full-ice games and needing to travel thousands of miles to do so.

So at the end on Sunday night a team from Wisconsin or New Jersey can say they are the best team of ‘06s…really! Any team can enter essentially as long as you have the cash. Secondly, have you ever really watched a full-ice Mite level game? The goalies without any disrespect are horrendous because they are young and just learning the game. The top scorer is the kid who is the biggest and can push the puck out in front of him from the fastest from the red line in and scores 90% of his goals on the break-a-way.

There are no true skill sets being displayed. Kids are not put in situations to display their hockey sense and quick decision thinking. The bodies out on the ice are so small and there is such a wide range spectrum of abilities that it actually becomes discouraging for the small, less-skilled players because they rarely touch the puck. The type of game actually promotes selfish plays as the bigger kid dominates and will not pass or show any kind of vision to find an open teammate. On top of that, the stick handling is far from being showcased as the ice is like an Olympic-sized sheet to the young players when played full-ice. In all actuality, bad habits can be formed on the larger ice surface. Oh did I mention these are kids playing not adults, so they are exhausted by the 2nd period anyway.

Look at the recent reaction by Canada's WJC Head Coach, Brent Sutter, after their failure to win gold for the fifth straight year and even medal in back-to-back tournaments. The former NHLer and current WHL coach questioned the development of Canadian players during the youth days. He stressed how the emphasis unfortunately is about winning, instead of skating, skills, and creativity. North American teams are not being beaten at the WJC, they are essentially already defeated years and a decade prior during the most important development stages.

The ADM is designed for quick touches; transitions from offense to defense and a way to keep the goalies fully involved at all times. When have you seen a game like that played before – your local NHL rink perhaps.

The majority of the parents that do complain about the cross-ice format are people that have very little or no hockey playing experience. It’s not like the program was introduced overnight. Significant resources and time was allocated to the ADM initiative and more American players will benefit in the near future as they grow and develop their game through the years.

I find it funny how much resistance is evident. When you look at other sports at the youth level you do not hear about backlash on lower basketball rims, smaller baseball diamonds, soccer fields, football fields, and junior tee boxes for golf. So why is it that a group of “instant gratificationers” need to be different? But that's what kind of society we are now. We cannot wait and be patient for our son to work hard and grow his game naturally. Oh no, we need that NCAA D1 commitment during pee wees and if that's not good enough we believe our kid needs to receive exceptional draft status.

Sadly, many parents are willing to do anything and spend anything. In a twisted way, many parents live through their own child's youth hockey experience. If one parent a day looked in the mirror, came back to reality, and opened their minds about proper hockey player development the world would be a lot better off and so would their hockey developing son.

As more regional ADM Managers get out to rinks at the grass root stages, parents will begin to realize that players are truly developing all aspects of their game. The edgework, stick handling, passing, hands, shooting technique, and getting used to playing in traffic. The small area games force kids learn to pass and move, handle pressure, move to open space, and how to play without the puck. They learn teamwork, separation, how to read things quickly and how to pass, pass, and pass. Believe me, the bigger kid at age seven dominating the full-ice game will not be the best as years pass and the climbing of the hockey pyramid levels increasing becomes more difficult.

In my scouting position, I annually attend the National Junior Evaluation Camp (NJEC) in Lake Placid, NY. In all honesty the games and level of competition is fascinating, but I actually enjoy the practice sessions even more. As a youth hockey coach, there are some great drills and small area games out there and many come from the Swedes and Finns. Skating, skills, and quick, precise decisions are the name of the game.

Boom, boom, boom. Little talk and lots of movement at a high pace.

That’s how the practices are enacted and when game time comes players execute and demonstrate these assets out on the ice. Teach the kids skill and how to think the game at a young age rather than emphasis on long schedules and winning – the end results will show at the end of the marathon opposed to the sprint -- long-term athlete development (LTAD).

So what’s the problem in today’s hockey world…Many are just trying to take advantage of the uneducated parent and player so their wallet becomes larger. From the overabundance of associations, to spring/summer league teams promising the moon, to a national tournament for 7-year olds. I try not to think of youth hockey like a bad episode of “Dance Moms”, but unfortunately it is hard not to.

As I tell the parents of my pee wee travel team, support your son by being involved outside the ice and locker room. Leave the Xs and Os, line-up, and power skating techniques to the coaches. There is a reason why good coaches coach and volunteer their time and expertise.

The ADM is a good thing for hockey, and the sooner we realize the better off the game and players of the future will be.

You can follow Russ Bitely for more hockey news, articles, and comments on Twitter: @russbites

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