The hockey tradition is strong in South St. Paul. Just ask United States Olympians Phil Housley and Justin Faulk.
So when the South St. Paul Youth Hockey Association embraced the player development ideas within USA Hockey’s American Development Model, there was understandably some local hesitation about the changes.
The Minnesota association has moved to change those perceptions.
One example can be found on the South St. Paul website. A video is posted with the title “From a child’s point of view, parents find full-ice hockey is no fun.”
The video demonstrates how a full sheet of ice looks (and plays) for a child. USA Hockey put adult players on an extra-large rink with giant nets to simulate what a child sees. The players found the games tiring, difficult and said they would lose interest quickly in the sport if that was what they faced.
“A lot of the reaction I’ve heard back from that video hasn’t been so much from parents of young boys but from grandparents who looked at this new system and were skeptical,” said Ben McClellan, who’s in his first season as the association’s ADM Director. “They didn’t realize kids pick up bad habits and that one kid can dominate a game. That opened their eyes.
“I have a mite-age son [Jack]. My dad [Michael] and I have gone around and around on it, but my dad’s starting to see the benefits of the new style.”
The coaches and kids within the program came around much more quickly.
“In old-style practices, there’s a lot of standing around,” McClellan said. “The more standing around there is, the more bored the boys get. The ADM style doesn’t allow that. And they’re always working on something different, like their edges or cross-overs or skating with the puck.
“We always like to have a fun game, so we’re giving them a break from constant structure. We want to get kids hooked right away by having fun.”
That’s another reason why, according to McClellan, the association’s mite registrations have increased in recent years: South St. Paul’s mite practices are taken straight from the ADM with minimal “tinkering.”
Once players graduate to squirts, 90 percent of their practices are station-based with multiple teams on the ice.
“I’ve encouraged our coaches to look at what the ADM gives us in terms of touches per player and use the philosophy of keeping kids active,” McClellan said. “Break the ice in half and focus on different elements of the game that you want to work on that day.”
McClellan commenced coaching in the association four years ago and, admittedly, wasn’t familiar with the ADM guidelines. But his eyes were opened during his second year when a team he was coaching participated in a 3-on-3 league.
“I saw the lack of skills we were teaching our kids,” McClellan said. “When we started working on those skills later on, we realized there were things they should have been taught years ago. They understood skill level was important rather than having to be here at a certain place on the ice at a certain time.
“It was more of a team realization.”
Dan Schaefer, who coaches both a Squirt C and an 8U team, realized the benefits of the ADM by watching his son play on that Squirt C team.
“My son’s never known anything different,” Schaefer said. “He judged whether he had a good practice if his hair was wet. The good thing about the ADM is it keeps everybody moving. As a parent-coach, I love the ADM.”
McClellan started coaching mites in 2010. At the time, the association was having difficulty encouraging kids to try out for the various teams — one reason being sports such as football and wrestling did a better job of demonstrating how kids could have fun.
“We had the old-school mentality,” McClellan said. “Then, we had try-hockey-for-free days where we showed you can have fun while skating, plus you don’t have to skate down a full sheet of ice.”
That approach enticed more boys to try hockey with the South St. Paul Youth Association.
Schaefer, meanwhile, also coached high school hockey at one time and noticed that too many boys were standing around listening to the coach and doing nothing.
“The ADM has fixed that,” Schaefer said. “When I took my advanced coaching certificate in 2002, [USA Hockey Regional Manager for ADM] Roger Grillo gave a presentation on cross-ice games. That made us ask ourselves, ‘How do we get the youth guys involved in it?’
“I tell detractors that the ADM is a blueprint and not a dictate. You can take two or three drills and customize them to your needs.”