Niagara Gazette — USA Hockey is changing the way its youth are learning to play the sport, and the Niagara Junior Purple Eagles are leading the way.
After years of research, USA Hockey, the country’s governing body for amateur hockey, has implemented a plan that calls for a revamp of practices and smaller playing surfaces to better suit the size and abilities of America’s youngest players.
The Junior Purple Eagles have been one of several local organizations to embrace USA Hockey’s new American Development Model, which mandates the switch to half-ice games and a new practice program, called “Red, White and Blue Hockey,” for all 8-and-under leagues across the nation.
After the Junior Purple Eagles applied the changes to each of its three mite (8 and under) teams last year, this year, parents and coaches are beginning to notice a difference: Smiles are much more common as their kids skate up and down the ice.
“When I get to the rink, I get to see 50 kids with nothing but big smiles on their faces,” said Eric Rhinehart, who coaches the NJPE 6-and-under team. “The kids like to play. That’s the big sign that it’s working. … With the amount of kids we have, the main thing is that they’re having fun and keep wanting to have fun. That’s what we’re focused on.”
Keeping the game of hockey engaging and interesting for the young players was USA Hockey’s top priority while developing the American Development Model.
After research revealed too many kids were dropping out of the sport at a young age—- 60 percent before peewees and 20 percent after just one year, according to USA Hockey website statistics — the need for a change became apparent.
Local organizations like the Junior Purple Eagles were quick to get on board and address the issues.
“You see the numbers, you see registration declining and we wanted to get out in front of it and decided to take advantage of the new approach,” said Mike Baio, the director of NJPE’s Mite division who oversees the transition to the new model.
“With the competition from other sports like soccer, football, lacrosse, and the misconception that hockey is an expensive sport, we wanted to change it up. What we’re going to do at the mite level is build the passion that allows them to commit to hockey when they’re older. That way they don’t go off and play soccer.”
The American Development Model introduces a new way for kids to learn the basics of the sport, centered around a shrunken-down playing surface.
Recently, NJPE purchased portable boards designed to cut each of Dwyer Arena’s normal-sized, 200-foot by 85-foot rinks into half-ice playing areas for games without losing the look and feel of a full-size rink.
By reducing the rinks to half-size for game play, officials say, kids become more challenged to maneuver in tight quarters. This, in theory, helps to better develop their ability to skate, stick handle, pass and shoot.
It also works to better accommodate the varying skill levels often seen at young ages, Baio said.
Under the old full-ice system, it was common for one or two players further along in their development to control the game, taking off on breakaways with the other 11 players left to watch as they skate by. Shrinking the ice makes it easier for all players — not just the best ones — to get involved in the game.
Baio likened the changes to Little League baseball. Instead of pitching and running from Major League-sized mounds and basebaths, little leaguers play on reduced distances more in tune with their size and capabilities. As they grow, so too does the size of the field.
“You have certain age groups that develop different skills at different times in their lives,” Baio said. “One of the things research found is that from ages 6 to 8 is when skating, balance, tight turns, all that core development is built.
“There’s only a certain window to develop those skills. Once they get past that window, it’s hard for the body and brain to maximize potential. Maximizing potential is what the goal was.”
The Red, White and Blue program also calls for sweeping changes to the way coaches run practices, breaking the ice into six stations. As players go from station to station, coaches are able to focus in on specific skills while kids remain engaged within like-skilled groups.
“They don’t even know they’re learning,” Rhinehart said. “These kids, they don’t see the difference. They don’t see it as half ice or full ice, they’re just having fun.”
Despite the positives, the transition to the American Development Model has not gone without opposition for the Junior Purple Eagles.
A contingent of local coaches and parents believe the half-ice style inhibits player growth. Some locals are even pulling their kids out of USA Hockey all together, joining non-affiliated leagues which have yet to adopt the American Development Model, in order to continue playing on full ice.
“It was not an easy sell,” Baio said. “Especially for those in the old-school group who grew up playing full-ice their whole lives.”
Craig Chenaille, who coaches the Junior Purple Eagles’ 8-and-under team, said the new model is far from perfect. While he has noticed a huge improvement for many players, Chenaille said he fears it will prevent some kids from reaching their full potential.
“I understand why they’re doing it, but I still have my reservations,” Chenaille said. “I believe it’s making the lesser players become better players, but I believe it’s also restricting the better players.
“The problem is we have 50 kids on the ice. What it’s done is it’s created a drop-off in talent. You have your top tier, middle tier and bottom tier. The kids who are benefitting most are the bottom tier.”
The concern is that the new model puts too much emphasis on practice, taking invaluable in-game experience away from the young players. Half-ice games don’t use key concepts like icing and changing lines on the fly.
And because there are still other organizations that are not using the American Development Model, coaches like Chenaille, who also heads the Mite Select team, are having trouble scheduling quality opponents and tournaments for the kids under the half-ice requirement.
“For the house program kids, the kids who don’t want to travel, this program does wonders for them,” Chenaille said. “But some kids want to play in tournaments. They want to keep score, they want to know what it’s like to win and to travel. That’s where it hurts.”
While the true assessment of the progress or failure of the American Development Model likely won’t be available for years down the road, a glimpse will come next year, when the current 8-and-under group, the first to learn under the new model at NJPE, transition into squirts and full-ice play.
Next hockey season is the one coaches are holding their breath for.
“The biggest downfall is the kids next year will be skating full ice, and our kids only know half-ice hockey,” Chenaille said. “Next year is going to be tough for us. There’s going to be some big changes for these kids.”
Follow freelance sports reporter Brandon Schlager on Twitter @B_Schlag.Follow freelance sports reporter Brandon Schlager on Twitter @B_Schlag.