USA Hockey 20/20: The Future of Youth Hockey

As We Look To The Future, How Will Today’s Programs Impact How The Game Is Played Tomorrow?

Happy New Year, 2013. Here’s wishing everyone in the USA Hockey family a safe and prosperous new year.

Just think, in seven short years—84 months, 364 weeks, 2,555 days, 25 million minutes, give or take a few hundred thousand—we will be popping the cork on New Year’s Day, 2020.

We may be jumping the gun, but time flies when you’re having fun.
If you want to know what the future has in store, look no further than the present. The programs that are in place today will be in full stride by then, and the fruits of everyone’s labor will be ready for harvest.

With the help of some of the most influential people in USA Hockey and around the hockey world, USA Hockey Magazine takes a look at where we’ve been, where we are today and most importantly, where the game is heading thanks to some of the innovative new programs established by USA Hockey.

When the National Hockey League opened its checkbook in 2009 to support new USA Hockey programs, the money was earmarked to improve the growth and continued development of the organization’s programs, from the National Team Development Program to new initiatives to grow the game. Since then, USA Hockey has worked hard to prove to the league’s board of governors that it has been money well spent.

Working with the 23 NHL teams based in the United States and the 34 Affiliates and 12 Districts within the USA Hockey family, the past three years have marked a period of unprecedented growth, not only in terms of the number of new kids coming into the sport but also the quality of the skills these players have developed.

All ADM, All The Time

The cornerstone of the skill development improvement is the American Development Model, or ADM for short, which is the driving force behind everything being done around the country, creating a single-minded focus on improving the skills and overall experience for kids coming into the game.

“Long-term athlete development and the ADM is the lens which we’re looking at all of our programs through. How does it affect the athlete versus how we’ve looked at things in the past?” says Ken Martel, the driving force behind the program since its inception in 2009.

The buy-in, while not complete, has been overwhelming as parents and coaches have seen the benefits of long-term athlete development, focusing more on skill acquisition and less on competition, especially at the youngest age levels.

“It’s gaining momentum quicker than we ever thought it would, and the people who have experienced
well-run ADM programs, there’s no way they’ll accept anything less.”
—Kevin McLaughlin, senior director of hockey development

While there’s no doubt that the ADM has changed the face of hockey at the younger age groups, according to Kevin McLaughlin now who oversees the program, it’s only scratched the surface in terms of impacting the game at all levels.

“There’s no way we’re turning back,” says McLaughlin, the senior director of hockey development for USA Hockey.

“It’s gaining momentum quicker than we ever thought it would, and the people who have been in Mite programs and have experienced well-run ADM programs, there’s no way they’ll accept anything less.

And as the word spreads, the ones who are now participating at Mites and Squirts are wondering what’s ahead at other levels.”

That same feeling is spreading through the Squirt and Peewee ranks as well, with the implementation of the progressive body checking skills program. By pushing back the start of legal body checking until the Bantam age level, parents and coaches are witnessing more skill development as Peewee-aged players are more willing to make plays with the puck without the fear of the big blow-up hit.

“Just go to the rink and watch a Peewee hockey game. What a difference in terms of the level of play, and the number of plays the kids are trying to make,” Martel says.

“You put things side by side with where they were just a few years ago, the level of play has really elevated, along with the skill in the game.”

It’s All About Skill Development

And that’s the ultimate goal of these programs. While USA Hockey has been proud of the nearly 250 American-born players now skating in the NHL, the next step is to create a new breed of creative player with better skills and the courage to use them in any competitive situation.

“In the future I expect to see a more technically developed player with better skill sets,” McLaughlin says. “We expect to see a player who still has passion, and hasn’t been burned out. Somebody who loves the game, who competes, and plays the game the right way … just a more well-rounded player.”

Not that changing the culture has been without its struggles. While support for these programs has been great, there are still pockets of hold outs around the country who feel that Mites should play 80 games a year on a full sheet of ice using a black puck.

“We have this conversation a lot – is it worth it? Our kids are grown and they’ve been through it, so why do we keep doing it?” McLaughlin asks.

“Go to the rink and watch a Peewee hockey game. What a difference in terms of the
level of play, and the number of plays the kids are trying to make.”
—Ken Martel,
ADM technical director

“The answer is we have learned that there is a better way. We love the game and we love the kids who play it, and we want those kids to benefit from the information and the knowledge we have gained. That’s what keeps our flame burning and our motor running.”

Over the next several years, McLaughlin says, the ADM will have even great impact on other age groups, as key elements of long-term athlete development will become a staple in training regimens for players of all ages.

Standing on the frontlines of ADM efforts is Roger Grillo, one of six highly motivated and passionate hockey people enlisted to serve as regional managers. A former college hockey coach with 17-years of experience, Grillo covers the entire northeast, from Maine to Massachusetts, logging thousands of miles as he preaches the ADM gospel to towns and associations where hockey is long woven into the fabric of New England life.

“I’ve seen in my region many pockets of ADM believers, and the culture change is certainly in full swing. It’s like anything, change is not always easy and there’s going to be some push back,” Grillo admits.

If Grillo has one regret, it’s that the ADM wasn’t around when his 16-year-old son Dominic was getting started.

“It’s almost a jealousy thing, but I wish I could turn back time and have him starting Mite hockey right now,” Grillo says. “The kids coming into our game now and in the future are going to be in such a great spot.”

Wider The Base, Higher The Pyramid

If the ADM is focused on improving the quality of an athlete’s skills, USA Hockey’s Membership Development Department has set its sights on expanding the ranks of tomorrow’s youth hockey players.

When Pat Kelleher kicked USA Hockey’s membership drive into high gear back in June 2008, there were almost 90,000 kids starting hockey at the 8 & Under level. Last year, those ranks swelled to more than 107,387.

Legendary coach Herb Brooks liked to say, “the wider the base the higher the pyramid.” The membership development efforts used the same strategy to improve the quantity and quality of USA Hockey’s ranks.

“In 2020, we’ll still be focusing on 8 & Under participation because there will always be new 6-year-olds looking to come into the game,” Kelleher says. “The moment we stop focusing on growth there will be some slippage in our membership.”

That’s why his department keeps coming up with new programs, such as the 2 & 2 Challenge, where local associations receive incentives to grow their ranks every year by recruiting at least two new players while retaining an additional two from the previous season. The numbers continue to swell to the point where even those at the top have taken notice.

“We have more than 100,000 kids at the 8 & Under level, which is significant. [Carolina Hurricanes owner] Peter Karmanos asked when we could get to 150,000,” Kelleher says. “That’s a huge challenge, but it’s out there. It takes all entities working together, including more ice rinks.”

More Demand Equals More Rinks

As everyone knows, it doesn’t matter how many players you have or how many dynamic programs you put forth for your membership if there aren’t places to play.

The rink industry has been fairly stagnant in recent years when it comes to building new facilities. Part of the problem is the current economic downturn, in which banks have been less likely to provide capital to build new rinks.

Another issue is that the previous boons in the rink business have been closely tied to NHL expansion.

There hasn’t been a new NHL franchise added to the mix since the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets expanded the ranks to 30 teams in 2000.

“There will always be inherent risks with sport, but also with free play. It’s part of life. Our job is to reduce that risk to the best of our ability.”
—Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey’s Chief Medical Officer

“Nobody is going to build any rinks unless the demand is there. That’s where USA Hockey and U.S. Figure Skating are doing a great job of creating programs that will increase that demand,” says Jeff Thieler, chief operating officer of Serving The American Rinks, a joint venture between USA Hockey and U.S. Figure Skating to ensure that rinks continue to not only survive but also thrive in the future.

Programs such as the ADM, which make better use of available ice by putting more players on the ice, have short-term and long-term benefits for rink operators. And the more kids trying hockey today means additional customers for the rinks now and in the future as they stay in the game.

“If we don’t get rinks to start growing then there’s only going to be so much growth,” Thieler says. “It goes hand in hand. Without these programs bringing more kids to the sport you’re not going to have more rinks. So it’s definitely the chicken-and-the-egg syndrome.”

Setting The Gold Standard

When it comes to determining the ultimate success of USA Hockey’s initiatives, there is any number of ways to measure success. For some it’s about the smiles on the kids’ faces, and the number of young hockey players who join adult leagues as they grow older.

For others it’s about the number of Americans playing at the highest levels of the game, whether that’s in the collegiate ranks or in professional hockey. And of course, the ultimate success for many is measured on the international arena, the gold medals that hang around players’ necks and the trophies that grace the lobby cases in USA Hockey’s offices.

A recent sweep of November tournaments marked another first on the international arena for USA Hockey, and strong showings in Vancouver in 2010, silver medals for the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Olympic Teams and gold for the U.S. Sled Hockey Team, offer a glimpse at a promising tomorrow.

With a current crop of high-level players battling for precious spots on U.S. rosters, the impact of more passionate and skilled players in the future will make it harder to decide who wears the red, white and blue.

“I hope it’s more difficult to make a National Team at every level in 2020 than it is today. It makes my job harder, but it’s a good problem to have,” says Jim Johannson, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of Hockey Operations and a member of the 1988 and 1992 U.S. Olympic Teams.

“I can tell you right now from even five years ago, it’s much more difficult to make our team, and if I think back far enough thank God it wasn’t this tough when I was playing.”
Don’t think for a second that the rest of the world hasn’t noticed what’s happening on American ice.

Hockey directors from other countries have applauded USA Hockey’s efforts while expressing concern that it could lead to stiffer competition for years to come.

A Safer Game For Everyone

Skill development is only one element of the game that USA Hockey has been focused on. Another is making the game safer for all its participants, which is a huge barrier to expanding its ranks. USA Hockey continues to work with inside and outside entities to keep the game safe, both on and off the ice, with innovative programs such as the recently launched SafeSport initiative.

That leads to the realization that USA Hockey and its board of directors can create programs designed to make the game better and safer, but enforcement has to start at the grassroots level.

“As the old saying goes, ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,’” says Mark Tabrum, director of USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program.

“We have a lot of good materials and we continue to create new ways to get it into the hands of

“There will always be inherent risks with sport, but also with free play. It’s part of life. Our job is to reduce that risk to the best of our ability.”
—Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey’s Chief Medical Officer

coaches through the online modules, the coaching app and our clinics. We’re giving them a lot of information.

“But again, we can give them lots of materials but that doesn’t mean they’re going to open the book or watch the DVD.”

Still, there are a number of strides made in the issue of safety, especially in the important issue of concussions in youth hockey, says Dr. Michael Stuart, USA Hockey’s chief medical officer and a physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Stuart and his team held a Concussions in Ice Hockey symposium in 2010, and featured leaders from throughout the hockey and medical community who came together to discuss this important topic.

“Concussions are clearly a problem in a variety of sports … and so it’s a concern, but I’m optimistic because USA Hockey with its SafeSport initiative is addressing the risk of injury in our sport,” says Stuart, the father of four hockey-playing children, including son Mark who plays with the Winnipeg Jets.

“There will always be inherent risks with sport, but also with free play. It’s part of life. Our job is to reduce that risk to the best of our ability, and also try to eliminate catastrophic injuries, which have such lifelong consequences.”

The Best Is Yet To Come

When Ron DeGregorio took over the reins as USA Hockey president from the iconic Walter L. Bush, Jr., in 2003, he put forth his vision for not only the future of the organization but also for the sport. In less than a decade under his leadership, USA Hockey has already exceeded many of his loftiest goals.

“I think we’re moving in a very good direction. I know we’re getting great accolades for doing so well in international competitions,” DeGregorio says.

“All that is well and good, but what excites me more than anything is what we’re doing with the American Development Model, making sure all of our stakeholders have a shared vision on how player development should operate.”

And still, for all that has been done, there is so far to go. The programs that have taken root today will be in full bloom in seven years, and new programs will make the leap from the drawing board and on to the ice. When that happens, DeGregorio expects to see the fruits of everyone’s labor showing up from the grassroots to the highest levels of the game.

“By 2020 I would like to see USA Hockey as the premier hockey country in terms of its performance in international competitions across the board, and have at least one world championship under our belt in the [men’s] senior division,” he says. “That is our ultimate goal.”



Photos from USA Hockey Magazine Archives


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