Hearts and Minds

Michigan’s Biggest Battle Waged Over What’s Best For Its Smallest Players

It’s a crisp spring day in Michigan, the kind that has locals thinking more about opening day at Comerica Park than the waning days of another hockey season.

As USA Hockey’s National Championships are in full swing at several locations around the state, the scene inside the Ann Arbor Ice Cube is like something from another world.

Rather than the high anxiety atmosphere associated with teams vying for youth hockey’s holy grail, the only sounds echoing through these rinks are cheers from parents looking to capture cell phone video of their sons’ and daughters’ 60-second shifts of happiness.

If the goodwill and good vibrations could be bottled and sold to youth sports around the country, it would erase the national debt.

“Events like this are huge because parents see what’s going on,” says Steve Armstrong, who is in charge of the organized chaos at the Ann Arbor Amateur Hockey Association’s Mite Jamboree. “We had 30 kids at one time playing hockey on a sheet of ice as opposed to 12. You have two and a half times the number of kids playing, per minute. Maybe it’s just the teacher in me, but the ADM just makes sense.”

As a long-time high school coach, Armstrong knows that there will be plenty of time for travel teams and all that goes with competitive hockey at an older age. For now it’s about kids having fun while working on skills that will better suit them further down the road.

There’s no need for a scoreboard to tabulate the amount of fun these kids are having. Players practice their “cellies” after scoring another of the countless goals that aren’t rung up on the scoreboard, often losing their balance and falling in a heap of snowy satisfaction on their way back to the bench.

Games last 18 minutes and then coaches line up their teams to school them in one of the greatest traditions in all of sports, the postgame handshake line. Then it’s off to the locker room for a juice box and a pep talk before the next game gets under way.

Over the course of the day each of the 22 teams will play a half dozen games, and by the time they make their way back to the minivan they are a bunch of tired little hockey players.

It’s hard to believe this is Ground Zero in a battle for the hearts and minds of Mite hockey in the state.

Since its inception in 2009, it’s taken a yeoman’s effort to convince parents and coaches that their 7- and 8-year-old sons and daughters shouldn’t be skating on the same size ice surface as Justin Abdelkader, shooting the same black puck as Danny DeKeyser and guarding the same net as Jimmy Howard.

With the help of USA Hockey, a growing number of Michigan associations are implementing the American Development Model, starting at the youngest age level. And yet sometimes it feels as if the message falls on deaf ears.

“For too long we assumed that just because it was coming from USA Hockey that people were going to listen,” says George Atkinson, the president of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association.

“As it turns out they may have told their side of the story a little better than we have.”

The “they” that Atkinson is referring to is the Amateur Athletic Union, which fairly recently began to dip its toe in the sport of ice hockey after more than a century in sports like basketball. Through its website and digital newsletter, the AAU attempts to lure parents with the look and feel of “real hockey.”

But for Bob Mancini, the ADM regional manager who is on the frontlines of this icy tug-of-war, having an 8-year-old playing on the same-sized sheet of ice as the Red Wings is akin to a Little Leaguer throwing from the same pitching mound as Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander.

“Our programs are based on science and age-appropriate training,” says Mancini, who helped start the NTDP in this same rink almost 20 years ago. “There will always be those who think this is OK for everybody but their own kid, but the fact is this is the right thing to do.”

This season will hail a significant change, as MAHA will join 19 other USA Hockey Affiliates by closing the door on exemptions that allowed programs to play a specific number of full-ice games. For Atkinson the move is long overdue.

“In the past we created a bit of a double standard where we promoted the fact that cross-ice hockey is great, but if some teams want to play full ice then that’s OK,” Atkinson says. “It’s almost as if we didn’t believe our own words.”

The shift in policy has been made more palatable by the number of associations that are already playing on smaller ice surfaces at the 8 & Under level. According to Atkinson, it’s becoming easier for teams in the state to find programs eager to play cross- or half-ice games.

To help MAHA do a better job of delivering its message, the organization has enlisted some of the state’s top coaches, including Div. I college coaches Red Berenson, Tom Anastos, Bob Daniels and Andy Murray for its MAHA Minute, to promote the ADM in short, bite-sized pieces aimed at dispelling the myths behind cross-ice hockey and age-appropriate training.

“We’re doing more cross-ice games even with Div. I hockey players, and I think it’s really good for our players’ instincts, their puck touches and their compete level,” said Berenson, who is approaching his 32nd year at the helm of the University of Michigan's men's hockey program.

“I want to see my grandkids in the same scenario, and they’re doing it more, and you can see the improvement in them. You find a way to help them get better. It doesn’t have to be on a 200-foot sheet of ice.”

Still, it’s hard to preach patience in a society bent on instant gratification and crossing the finish line before the race even begins. But Armstrong has tried to do just that with those who will reap the benefits of the next generation of skilled players.

“Some day it’s all going to come to fruition,” Armstrong says. “I’ve joked with the high school coaches that they have to wait six years but this pack of kids is going to be really good. As time goes on, and it’s going to take a few years, people are going to ask, ‘why are these kids better?’”

Mancini knows there will always be detractors, those who don’t let facts get in the way of their opinions, but there’s no denying that more Michigan  parents are getting onboard with what's best for their pint-sized players.

And if one spring Saturday in Ann Arbor proved anything it’s that the tide is turning, and the youngest players are the ones who are riding the crest of the wave.

Issue: 
2015-10

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