Currently Illinois is in the middle of a changing landscape for U7 and U8 players, also known as Mites. There is a lot of “political” disinformation between USA Hockey, AHAI and some of AHAI’s affiliate hockey clubs that don’t like the direction of USA Hockey. Like it or not, parents of this age group must make a decision on what’s best for their individual players.
As a little background, the difference we are talking about is the size of the ice surface for U7 and U8 players. For the U6 player, there is no disagreement in the hockey community that half-ice or less is the best training tool for those youngest players. Let it also be said that AHAI, and I personally, see “the limited use” of full-ice as a benefit to players as they move closer to the U10 (Squirt) division. We should keep in mind that all of these skaters are beginning hockey players. While there is a small percentage of highly skilled U8 players, the majority are still mastering the skills needed to enjoy playing the game. The bottom line is that AHAI, along with NIHL and NWHL, will be featuring a schedule of 15 full-ice games after December 1, 2014, plus league playoffs. NIHL and NWHL are also including competitive half-ice league games where standings and scheduling are handled by the leagues. The other option for your child (not affiliated with USA Hockey or AHAI) is playing close to 40 full-ice games starting sometime in September (or earlier) with limited, if any, half-ice games. Those half-ice games will be administered by the clubs and/or coaches themselves only if they so choose.
In addition to NIHL and NWHL’s Fall leagues, AHAI is offering a second program, the Mite ADM Program, which is a fully compliant American Development Model program. This program features only half-ice games. One of the main reasons AHAI is offering a fully compliant ADM program is that there are many parents and coaches that believe it is the best development program for their players. An important part of the AHAI Mite ADM Program is the quality of coaching being offered by the Tier I clubs who are administering this program. Registration for the AHAI Mite ADM program is strong with registration currently at 65% capacity.
Parents need to understand what their local program is offering and if that program offering fits the needs of their player. Parents should also know what their goals for both their player and program are by asking themselves the following questions: Are the overall goals of the program in line with the player’s goals or potential? Does the club have their best coaches at the youngest levels? Does the player just want to play recreationally or become more competitive? Does the club have multiple levels of teams to accommodate the different player skill levels? Do the travel and time commitments fit the overall needs of the family? Does the club have a “developmental plan” for the Mite level? Do the people that run the club and make the decisions have the best interest of the player in mind not only at the mite level, but as they move through to the older levels?
As a parent of three (3) boys who went through the Mite program, the best development for my boys was on small ice. My boys started at a club where they had an Olympic and NHL size rink (Center Ice of DuPage). My Mite experience on full-ice was that the most skilled player from each team went end-to-end and the less skilled players (my sons) rarely touched the puck. We ended up moving to 7 Bridges and all of the boys played Mite hockey on what was then called the Collegiate Rink, about 85” long x 40” wide, effectively “half-ice”. All of my boys had different skill and commitment levels, but all of them were able to play to the level they chose. I attribute the reasons for their successful development as twofold: good coaches and the size of the ice surface. The Club held station based practices during the week and games on weekends. The best anecdotal evidence I can provide is that when any of the Club’s four U7/U8 Mite teams played in a tournament on a full sheet of ice, there was no comparison in skill, as our teams performed very well against the teams that trained on full-ice only. Many of the opponents were higher level “travel” teams. Ironically, in these tournaments we would usually play another team from our Club in the Championship games. Now I might date myself a little, but some of the players on these teams had names such as Sutter, Belfour, and Chelios (I believe their Dads might know something about development). Many of those House level players went on to play high level hockey at the High School, Junior, and Collegiate levels, with some even reaching the professional ranks. I’m not saying this is all due to the training they received during their Mite years, but without proper training, it would have made their path much tougher.
I believe a combination of station based competitive practices, competitive game environments (half-ice and limited full-ice) and most importantly, quality coaching is the best way to develop U8 players. I am not alone in this thought process. AHAI, USA Hockey, the International Ice Hockey Federation, the International Olympic Committee, the Chicago Blackhawks, and the NHL also believe in this philosophy.
As parents, please carefully consider these three things: 1) what is the development goal for your player?, 2) make an educated decision on what program will work best toward achieving that goal and provide the best development, and 3) what program best fits your family’s needs?
Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or need help understanding the AHAI, NIHL and NWHL programs.