When Roger Grillo tours the New England region touting the merits of the American Development Model, even his staunchest critics can’t question his passion for the program.
The Apple Valley, Minn., native wears his hockey heart on his sleeve as he talks about the benefits of cross-ice practices, small area games and skill developing drills. Grillo backs it up with PowerPoint presentations, pie charts and statistics assembled by some of the brightest minds in the field of sports science.
And if that’s not enough, Grillo weaves in experiences from his 19 years as a Div. I college hockey coach to pack more power behind his skill-developing punch.
But it’s when he starts talking about the Southern Rhode Island Rams Bantam Tier II team that his message takes on a very human face.
This season Grillo led the SRI Rams to the USA Hockey 14 & Under Tier II National Championships, coming up just short of the title, losing to the Omaha Jr. Mavericks, 4–3, in the final seconds of the championship game.
It turned out to be an amazing end to a season that got off to a bit of a rocky start. When Grillo brought a collection of kids together from the Rhode Island towns of North and South Kingstown in early September, parents didn’t know what to make of his coaching methods. The sight of 50 kids on the ice at the same time sent grumblings through the bleachers at the Boss Arena on the campus of the University of Rhode Island.
Armed with practice plans that came straight out of the ADM manual, Grillo created fast-paced practices designed to keep that many players moving as they shuttled from station to station where they worked on various skills.
“It’s the same thing I’m preaching all over the country: ice utilization, puck touches and individual skills,” said Grillo, who spent 12 seasons up the road as the head coach at Brown University.
“Not only that, but because we had so many kids on the ice at one time, we were able to go from one practice a week to three or four.”
The results eventually quieted the voices of dissent as various teams in the program of 350 kids began to enjoy success on the ice, led by the Bantam team that won the state championship.
“Here’s a perfect example of what can happen when you take a group of kids who have a passion for the game and help them focus on improving their individual skills rather than worrying about winning games,” Grillo said.
Grillo was not the only ADM regional manager to make a huge impact with a local team. After 15 years at the Div. I level, Scott Paluch traded in his college coaching card to help develop the ADM for the Mid-America and Southeast Districts. The career change has also given him more time to work with his son Jacob’s team, which also competed at the Tier II 14 & Under tournament in Wayne, N.J.
“I’ve never had an opportunity to spend this much time with him in a hockey setting. I’ve been able to see a lot of the team’s successes and Jacob’s successes and have enjoyed seeing it first hand,” said Paluch, who spent seven years as the head coach of his alma mater, Bowling Green State University.
After years of missing as many games as they saw their sons compete in, both Paluch and Grillo were able to enjoy coaching their kids on a full-time basis.
“I missed so much; from September to April I wasn’t part of [Dominic’s] hockey life.” Grillo said. “This year has been a double-edged sword. On one hand it makes me sad because I’ve seen what I missed [in the past]. On the other hand, I had one kick at the can this year and had a blast at it.”
According to Paluch, the same principles that go into creating an ADM-type practice for Mites can be used at every level of the game, right up to the collegiate and professional ranks.
“A lot of the components of the ADM that we’re doing at Mite clinics we’re also doing with Bantam players,” said Paluch, who had to forego plans to help run an ADM style practice during the Frozen Four in Detroit when his team earned a trip to Nationals.
“It’s an emphasis on skills, the byproduct of them having fun playing hockey. We hammer home skills, skills, skills, and to see it pay off with our boys is very rewarding. There are so many similarities at all ages, including college. It definitely pays off.”
Approximately 150 miles north of Toledo, Bob Mancini was seeing the same results with his team. His practices with the Bay County Blizzard Mite team were broken into various stations where up to 60 kids would work on skills at a fast and fun pace.
“We don’t teach systems, we don’t teach them to forecheck. We encourage them to try things and be creative,” said Mancini, who serves as the ADM regional manager for Michigan, Illinois and Missouri.
“Our coaches never tell our players to dump it in, get it deep. They just let the kids play.”
The end result was a team that surprised many people in the state by winning their division of the Little Caesars league by following ADM principles.
A huge proponent of cross-ice hockey at the Mite level, Mancini ran into an old way of thinking that 8-year-olds in Michigan need to play on the same ice surface as the Detroit Red Wings.
“Unfortunately, we had to play full-ice games because nobody in Michigan would play us in half-ice games. It was definitely something that I wasn’t happy about,” said one of the architects of the National Team Development Program.
“I wish I didn’t have to make the concessions I did, but in hindsight I think I had to make it so others could see what we did.”
The proof was in the performance, as Mancini’s Mites became the first Bay County team to win a division championship in the Little Caesars league. Impressed by the skill level they saw from the Bay County squad, a number of opposing coaches around the state have already signed up to face off against Mancini’s squad, but are now willing to play on a smaller ice surface.
“There’s nothing in my career that is as rewarding as what has taken place the last
two years as a Mite coach,” said Mancini, who returned to USA Hockey after two seasons as the development coach for the Edmonton Oilers.
“I not only go into meetings with pie charts and data to back up that the ADM works, now I have real-life experiences because I have lived it.”