During last season’s NHL work stoppage, Boston Bruins assistant coach Geoff Ward was among the many with time on his hands. So he helped out coaching his son’s Bantam team.
Twenty years of coaching in the professional ranks couldn’t help Ward skirt USA Hockey’s coaching certification process, something that he now considers to be a blessing.
“They’re something for me to go back and look at,” Ward told a group of youth hockey coaches who gathered at TD Garden for the Boston Bruins Coaching Symposium.
“I grew up in Canada, and I wish they worked in some of the things. … The certification program of USA Hockey is moving right along. It’s a great thing.”
The 500 coaches in attendance represented more than 3,500 years of coaching experience, according to Bruins Youth Hockey Director Mike Dargin, and they traveled from all over New England, New York and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec to participate.
The large attendance is a sign that youth hockey in the metro Boston area is under no delusion. It’s well understood among the rank and file that New England is no longer producing elite prospects by the dozens, and over the past decade has fallen behind even non-traditional hockey markets in developing top hockey talent.
According to Roger Grillo, who joined USA Hockey after 20 years in the collegiate coaching ranks, a decade ago 185 Div. I college players came out of Massachusetts. That number had dipped to 100 by last winter, and Grillo projects two years from now that number will dive to 80 despite the increase in Div. I hockey programs.
He blames an outdated development system that prioritized “too much hockey” and “too many games.”
The post-pond-hockey era has left children with little time to be engrossed in skills development, the kind that unconsciously happens when a kid is lost in the joy of skating, passing and shooting, be it at a pond, on the street or in their basement.
“Treating little kids like adults is not healthy,” Grillo said. “The reality of it is we’re not focused on developing elite players, but if there are fewer kids being developed up there, it trickles down. It tells you something is wrong.”
Thanks to the impact the American Development Model has had on community-based hockey organizations, a grassroots turnaround has taken hold in the region. The Coaching Symposium, the third annually conducted by the Bruins, was a platform for a day of education for and feedback from youth-hockey coaches and an opportunity to galvanize toward the common goal of growing the game.
“Obviously, for us, the big thing is really just trying to continue to grow our great game here in the United States, especially locally, get more and more kids playing and eventually get more and more Americans playing in the NHL,” said Cam Neely, the president of the Bruins and a hockey dad.
Former NHLer Andy Brickley, who emceed the event, said he was never a top player on any of his teams growing up in the Boston area. But, because hockey remained fun he never lost his passion for the game, he kept improving and eventually played for his country in the 1981 World Junior Championship.
Brickley considers USA Hockey’s mission to be his story. His decade-long NHL career included a run to the 1990 Stanley Cup final with the Bruins and totaled 402 NHL games counting playoffs.
“Remember the reason that you’re there, and that’s to help the kids have fun with the game and also develop in the game that we all love,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien, who addressed the group for 20 minutes before his team’s morning skate for their game against the New Jersey Devils.
“The biggest mistake [a coach for professionals could make] is to assume an activity or a game within practice is too childish. We’re all kids inside. This is not a job for me, this is fun.”
After the general session ended, the coaches broke into classroom-size groups around the arena concourse for breakout sessions held by Grillo, fellow regional ADM manager Ty Hennes, USA Hockey’s Senior Director of Hockey Development Kevin McLaughlin, and Youth Hockey Manager Kenny Rausch.
Coaches watched video presentations of on- and off-ice training geared toward specific age groups and discussed coaching and player-development topics.
“Remember the reason that you’re there, and that’s to help the kids have fun with the game and also develop in the game that we all love.”
— Claude Julien,
McLaughlin stressed that players need to take more personal responsibility for their own development around the time they reach Bantams, ramp up their time commitment and add strength conditioning and more meaningful competition to their hockey development. Before then it should be all about developing individual skills and a passion for the game.
“We have a lot of new resources for off-ice training, hockey things like stick-handling with wooden balls, shooting pucks off ice," McLaughlin said. "But also a lot of things for agility, balance and coordination, speed and strength training. You don’t even need to go to a gym, really, to do it. If you’re truly motivated to improve, USA Hockey has a lot of resources to help you.”
The ADM makes training appropriate for each age level, and skills remain a focal point in the sport.
Harvard coach Ted Donato, a former NHLer and member of the Crimson’s 1989 NCAA championship team in addition to several U.S. national squads, told the symposium that skills development never stops, even for elite players.
“I think decision making is tough to teach, but when you have small games kids learn by themselves. They learn by doing,” Donato said.
“It’s a small percentage of kids who will go on to play in this building. It’s a team game, there’s a lot of life lessons, but ultimately you want a kid to have fun. Small victories ... you’ve got to recognize those.”