Chalk Talk: Youth hockey growth is exciting, but let’s work together
I’ve been coaching youth hockey in Colorado since 1994 and I have seen the game evolve in our state to a respectable competition level.
Over those years, there’s been a lot of positive changes in how we develop our young players, and there’s also been some things we could do better.
First, I’d like to discuss the positive impact that USA Hockey’s switch to the American Development Model (ADM) has had on our younger players. All anyone has to do is take a look at the skills and skating abilities of our younger players to understand the benefits of coaches implementing multiple repetitions and small-area games into their practices. As few as 10 years ago, each association would have a couple really good players that stood out in a group that wasn’t that strong. Now, the core group is becoming strong. Anyone that has read the book “Outliers” and understands the 10,000-hour rule would understand that more efficient practices with multiple repetitions, as suggested by the ADM, is directly correlated with the increased level of skill our players are experiencing.
Along with the ADM, USA Hockey has undergone changes in the past few years regarding body contact. The benefit of teaching proper body contact and body checking techniques has been necessary, as the game has evolved to one of speed and high skill level. It’s no secret that the game is becoming faster with a focus on puck separation and puck possession. Anyone that watched Team North America team compete in the World Cup of Hockey would agree that the younger players are faster and the game is cleaner. When younger players are taught how to correctly execute body contact, their transition into body checking at Bantams becomes easier.
The end result of a team that angles properly and checks properly is puck separation and ultimately, more time with the puck which creates more scoring opportunities. The days of open-ice hits, follow-through checking and checking to intimidate are old school and coaches teaching this approach are hindering their players’ development.
Occasionally, I will hear the argument that body checking should not have been removed from 12U. They may not be aware that the rule actually lowered the age of body contact to the Squirt level. If two well-coached Squirt teams play each other, the game should be fast and physical. Last season, I had the privilege of coaching the Jr. Avalanche Pee Wee AA team in the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. All of those games were very physical, but at the same time, they were clean and fast. As a coach, I believe that all levels of coaches are morally and ethically obligated to walk your team through the “Checking the Right Way for Youth Hockey” publication from USA Hockey.
As we focus on developing players and building stronger hockey programs in Colorado, we should go back to the basics: ADM, USA Hockey checking guidance and developing players at the correct level. In Colorado, I have seen many AAA programs cropping up, which dilutes the competition and lowers the skill level of the players and teams overall. This system is broken, and does very little to benefit the majority of players and their families relative to the cost, which is often three times higher than a typical travel club.
Most people who are knowledgeable about competitive youth hockey would agree that Colorado has too many AAA organizations relative to the pool of talent available. It’s my opinion that the competition level at AAA, high school and AA would all benefit if the Colorado AAA ranks weren’t diluted.
Whether it’s ADM, proper USA Hockey checking techniques, or what level our kids should play at, our goal as parents, coaches and directors should be to work together to provide the best possible development program for our state and our country.
Sean Leonard is the head coach of the Arapahoe Warriors’ Bantam AA team.