Annual event allows hockey minds from the U.S. and Finland to share and exchange ideas
By Greg Bates, Special to AHAI
Last season, 39 Finnish-born players skated in the NHL. The Finnish Ice Hockey Association (FIHA) has proven it does a great job of growing and developing its players, getting them ready for the top competition in the world.
USA Hockey, the national governing body for ice hockey in the United States, and FIHA, the governing body in Finland, teamed up earlier this decade to form a development exchange program for both organizations to learn from the other’s successes.
For eight days in late November/early December, two regional managers, Pekka Peltola and Jari Saastamoinen, from FIHA traveled to the United States to meet with USA Hockey representatives in Illinois.
“We’ve just found that there’s so many good discussions from it that we can have some great takeaways from both sides,” said Dan Jablonic, the USA Hockey ADM regional manager for Illinois. “They’re looking at our programs, we’re looking at theirs. It’s really, really beneficial for both programs.”
Peltola and Saastamoinen had a jam-packed schedule while in town. Jablonic and his USA Hockey colleagues wanted to give their foreign friends a real taste of American hockey. Each day presented a specific focus. And each day was certainly different and informative. The group took in five hockey practices and games of various levels.
“What we really wanted to do was show them our American structure from beginning hockey, so we met with the Blackhawks and their learn-to-play program and we went all the way through as far as recreational hockey, Tier II travel, Tier I travel, all the way up through USHL, college and then the pro side,” Jablonic said.
One of the biggest takeaways for USA Hockey was the cooperative effort FIHA has with its programs around its home country.
“They actually have nine regional managers, similar to our structure, but then they have 25 skill coaches using an Umbrella Model that go out and work with the clubs,” Jablonic said. “This is something that’s amazing for youth sports, no kids leave their clubs up until age 14. The big clubs take care of the small clubs; they work with those players so they’re getting developed. Then those critical skill windows, ages 9 to 13, kids are getting extra attention at those right ages, so I thought that was pretty cool to see their developmental focus.”
The collaborative effort of all the clubs working in sync is something that Jablonic would love to have USA Hockey associations latch onto.
“The Finns are like, ‘Hey, it’s competition in the rink but cooperation essentially outside the rink,’” Jablonic said. “Those little takeaways make a ton of sense, and we need that obviously in Illinois. For example, are you a Recruiting Club or a Developmental Club? We have some uncooperative programs, but at the same time there’s some really good ones. I’m excited now to take this energy from our discussions with local clubs. We’re going to put some association leaders/hockey director groups together and have meetings to talk about hockey getting back to what’s in the best interest of the kids.”
Peltola, Saastamoinen and Jablonic spent most of the day on Nov. 28 at the Chicago Steel facility in Geneva. Steel General Manager Ryan Hardy found it informative getting ideas from some great hockey minds.
“Any time that you can pick the brains of people that are doing something at a high level like they are at the upper level of FIHA, I think it’s a great opportunity for myself and our coaches and our players,” Hardy said.
Hardy was able to sit down with the Finnish guys and chat as well as have them offer on-ice instruction.
“There’s a lot of things in FIHA that they’re doing relating to the individual development of players, their high-end players, and there’s a lot of things that they’re doing that we’re doing here,” said Hardy, who has two Finnish-born players on his roster. “It’s a great opportunity for them to kind of take a look at the program we’re running and we give them some information on some things we’re doing. We got some information from what they’re doing and see what we can steal and apply in our program. It was a great day.”
The first day the Finnish reps were in the United States, they went to Franklin Park — which is a Tier III program — to see how practices run for recreational hockey ages 8U to 18U. Hockey director/assistant manager Tim Monroe had two girls’ teams, 12U and 14U, on the ice along with a boys’ squad.
“We had an ADM practice and the Finns and Dan, everyone jumped in,” Monroe said. “We had our coaches design practice and then they just jumped in and helped us out where they could.
“It was a really wonderful session because they did things a little bit differently, and I think that USA Hockey can draw from some of their experiences.”
FIHA prefers to run plenty of competition-based games during practice to get players constantly skating, noticed Monroe. USA Hockey’s ADM works in a similar fashion.
One takeaway Monroe had from listening to the Peltola and Saastamoinen was FIHA offers a sort of an a la carte menu for its players. If a kid wants to only play, say, two days a week, the organization will accommodate. One day might be dedicated to playing small games and the other on stickhandling.
“They can kind of pick and choose what they want to do based on what they can make,” Monroe said. “That was very interesting based on a perspective of a club that’s trying to grow the game that’s certainly a way to keep kids interested and not burn them out but yet give the kids that want to advance as much as they can handle.”
Jablonic brought the Finnish reps up to Wisconsin for a few activities. The group spent an hour with University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach Tony Granato and his staff. Granato, a Downers Grove native, stressed how important it is for him to recruit sound academic athletes, making sure they are good kids who would fit into his program.
Peltola and Saastamoinen then traveled northwest of Madison to Sauk Prairie to take in an on-ice body contact clinic. The group returned to Madison that Saturday evening to catch the Wisconsin-Penn State game. The following night, the Finns watched their second Blackhawks game in five days with the Calgary Flames in Chicago.
USA Hockey is looking to continue and expand the development exchange program with FIHA in the coming years. It’s a win-win for both organizations.
Jablonic is planning to explore implementing a similar structure as FIHA in getting programs around Illinois working together.
“We need to do the same type of thing,” Jablonic said. “We start doing that a little more, just increase it a little, wow, we’re going to be off the charts in our development.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.