All In

Walpole Express Growing In Quantity And Quality By Proving ADM Is For All Ages

It’s a Wednesday night in September at Rodman Arena, and the Olympic ice inside the twin-rink complex two miles north of Gillette Stadium is overrun with three dozen young hockey players and a dozen coaches.

Youngsters skate, stickhandle, pass, shoot, battle, sweat, laugh, and huff and puff their way from station to station in high-energy hockey drills. Encouragement and a timely tip are never more than a stride away.

There are several stations running simultaneously during the practice, but the Walpole Express keeps the cars moving. No one gets distracted, much less bored, and no one, it seems, wants to miss this train. When the players exit the rink, their cheeks are red and their smiles wide. They are the good kind of tired.

“This is what youth hockey is supposed to be about,” said Roger Grillo, American Development Model regional manager for New England.

A half century ago, Walpole’s 4 Seasons Arena was a hockey mecca that conspired with the town’s frozen ponds to feed the passion of skaters like future Boston Bruins Mike Milbury and Tommy Songin.

In recent years, hockey faded from the community conscience it once held, but there has been a regional resurgence evident in several multi-rink complexes built outside Boston in the past 20 years.

Only one of those centers is home to a program fully committed to the ADM.

With 1,238 kids trying out this year, the Walpole Express is proving that the ADM is for everyone, and its all-in programming has made the organization one of the country’s 20 model associations.

“We’ve kind of gotten off course in the last 25 years, and to swing it back on course isn’t an easy thing,” Grillo said. “There’s apprehension and sometimes it’s a leap of faith. With Walpole Express there was some big apprehension. Now you see it and they’ve hit a home run with it.”

Express and Rodman Arena owner Rob Barletta has been embracing ADM concepts since he started Northeast Elite Hockey in 2001. His six-team, age-division leagues gave him control of the competition and, with it, parity.

“Nobody learns if you’re winning or losing by too many goals,” said Barletta, who added all-star teams branded as the Walpole Express.

Motivation to make those teams came naturally to house-league players.

“The top two kids, when they’d go back to their [house league] teams, they’d talk about how much fun they had on the Walpole Express,” Barletta said. “So what we did this year was made a decision to dissolve the NEH after 14 years.”

All age groups now wear the Express logo, and all are programmed according to the ADM.

A lot of the credit goes to former Olympian and NHLer Mark Kumpel, who coached the Express Junior team and in three years helped place 35 players on college teams.

“He’s the one who really pushed me to get involved with USA Hockey,” said Barletta, who was already hiring professional coaches and had prescribed a weekly activity ratio including two practices, a skills session, a game and two dryland training sessions.

Last year Barletta brought in Dana Borges to run hockey operations, and in his second season Borges presented a plan to make the Express all-ADM. Barletta told him to run with it.

“We’re focusing on long-term goals…not to have our kid be the best 12-year-old player…[but] to have that kid be the best long-term player he [or she] can be,” Borges said. “Every kid has a ceiling that he [or she] can hit based on God-given talents. We want to get those kids to be at their ceiling.”

Brian Webber, a Johnston, R.I., resident, has a daughter skating with the 2003 Premier boys’ team and a son on the 16U  Elite squad.

“We were kind of caught in the disintegration of the state league…I was looking for a place for my son to develop,” said Webber, who made the move six years ago. “It’s been wonderful, the way they treat the kids, the development that goes on and the extras that they do…The state league version of skill sessions were just not what we were looking for.”

Viable, closer-to-home options have emerged in recent years, but Webber is content with the 35-minute commute from suburban Providence because of the attention his kids get from professional coaches.

“There’s just a really good feel about it,” he said. “[Barletta] has got a really hands-on approach.”

Even in the 8 & Under age group, there is a day that includes a half hour of dryland training.

“They do it with wheel barrows and playing kickball, running through cones. But listen to how much fun they have,” said Barletta, playing back a cell-phone video of a recent dryland session.

Outside Rodman Arena, parents sit at picnic tables and watch their kids train.

Barletta’s son Robbie and daughter Jessica work in his hockey school, and his dog Jake greets newcomers.

High energy practices provide members of all the Walpole Express teams the opportunity to work on their skills in a fun environment.High energy practices provide members of all the Walpole Express teams the opportunity to work on their skills in a fun environment.

“Everyone thinks that the ADM is all about little kids. It’s all the way up,” Barletta said. “My son Robbie skates every day. But I don’t make him skate; he wants to skate. He’s working at his skills, and that’s where it’s at. It really shows in the kids’ games.”

As owner of the Express, the arena and the hockey school, Barletta ensures that he or one of his full-time staffers is present at all times.

Barletta typically sits a few rows behind the glass and videotapes sessions. The Express uses the USA Hockey Activity Tracker, which measures the efficiency of practice time. Following a session, coaches review video and discuss ways to improve.

It’s an encouraging way to work for high-level mentors like goalie coach Ed Kessel, who came over from Babson College, and EHL team general manager/coach Jon Lounsbury, who this year turned down offers in pro hockey.

“A kid going to play college hockey where he didn’t think he would go play, that’s what excites me. I get to be part of something really successful and put my own stamp on something,” said Lounsbury, whose teams have placed 50 players in colleges over the past four years.

“We could go 0-50 in a season but, if we’ve got 10 or 15 guys who are going to play college hockey, that’s a successful season in my book.”

The ADM intimidates some potential adherents, but the Express is quick to correct the misconceptions.
“The big sticking point for some of them is they felt like if they followed the criteria that we suggest, they might lose numbers. We tell them, ‘If you do it well and do it right and focus on the kids and making them better—and fun isn’t a bad thing—it’ll work out,” Grillo said.

“In a lot of ways, when you do see it in action, a lot of it is common sense.



ADM Model Club Ranks Swell To 20

The Walpole Express is one of three youth hockey organizations to recently earn the designation as USA Hockey Model Associations, increasing the total number of model associations nationwide to 20.

Joining the Express are Grand Traverse Hockey Association (Traverse City, Mich.) and the Yale Youth Hockey Association (New Haven, Conn).

With this designation, each association is committed to fully implementing programming dedicated to age-appropriate, age-specific skill development, in accordance with the American Development Model at the Mite, Squirt and Peewee levels.

“By taking this step, these associations are making a strong move to offer the best possible competition and training environment for their players,” said Kevin McLaughlin, senior director of hockey development.

Mick Colageo covers the Boston Bruins for the New Bedford (Mass.) Standard-Times.



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