Minnesota is a state filled with hockey hotbeds, yet for some reason, East Grand Forks isn’t always the first community that comes to mind when it comes to on-ice success. But it should be.
Few other communities can match what East Grand Forks has accomplished over the past decade. Competing in one of the toughest Class A sections, they’ve earned five trips to the MSHSL Boys’ Hockey State Tournament and won back-to-back state titles in 2014 and 2015.
The girls’ program has also produced consistently strong high school teams and finished second at the MSHSL Girls’ Hockey State Tournament in 2014.
In addition, many of the players have gone on to have individual success. Six players from East Grand Forks are currently playing NCAA Division I hockey, and Tucker Poolman recently became the town’s first player to reach the NHL.
All of this success from a town of roughly 9,000 people. It’s an impressive run to say the least.
Yet, a completely revamped squirt program has leaders in East Grand Forks, as well as USA Hockey ADM Regional Manager Guy Gosselin, confident and excited that the future is even brighter.
“They’re implementing some cutting-edge stuff in terms of squirts and half-ice hockey,” said Gosselin. “They wanted to put the kids first and really give them what they need to excel in the game and have a better experience.”
The New Model
“Our plan, which we’ve already started, is to take our group of squirts, roughly 35 skaters and four goalies, and we’re always going to practice together,” said Judd Stauss, youth development coordinator for East Grand Forks. “Within our program here, we are going to play in-house half-ice games, concentrating on small areas.”
“We’re going to play five-on-five, and the kids are going to go, go, go, go.”
The in-house games, which will feature four balanced teams, will be the players’ only game action up until January 1st.
“From that point, we will name a Squirt A team and two Squirt B teams, but we will still practice together,” said Stauss. “We’re not going to end practicing together, but we will name some teams.”
A World Leading View
“Obviously, this is a change, and it’s a pretty big one to a lot of people,” said Stauss. “You don’t just, all of a sudden, wake up one day and say okay, we’re going to change our Squirt program. It has a lot to do with the research that we did, obviously with USA Hockey, but also looking into what I would consider are two of the top countries in development in Sweden and Finland.”
Gosselin, who first met with Stauss and East Grand Forks’ program director, Mark Dragich, last spring, has been impressed with their passion for doing the right thing for kids and making their program better.
“They listened intently and asked a lot of questions about this,” said Gosselin. "They want all of their kids to get a better experience. They want to retain more players, and they know at that age group repetition of technical skills is very, very important. They’re spot on. Our European friends have been doing that for years.”
“I asked one of our Swedish development friends who we were on a tour with a couple of weeks ago. I said, ‘Tell me about your 10U cross ice hockey.’ He looked at me with a smile and said, ‘Is there another way?’ They just kind of take it for granted over there. They understand it’s the best thing for kids at 10U. They’ve been doing it a long time, and the Swedes and the Finns are probably the best development people right now in the world.”
Boys high school coach Tyler Palmiscno has also played a key role in developing and supporting the change from the start. Together, they designed an innovative program that implements many of the development principles from their research, combined with their own unique twists to fit their community.
“Player development is what we need to focus on, not winning and losing at a Squirt level,” said Stauss. “Nobody becomes Patrick Kane at a nine or ten-year-old level. It’s a process. These kids need to go through a lot of growing before they get to that stage. The squirt/10U level might be the most important time for these kids to develop.”
Skills, Repetitions and Hockey Sense
While the adjustment to half-ice games may be what grabs most people’s attention, East Grand Forks’ new approach to practice is equally ground breaking.
Many associations require shared practices, but it’s common for teams to split the ice in two and stay on their own half of the ice for the duration of practice. While that format is certainly a more efficient use of ice time than a single team practice, it also has limitations from a development perspective.
“We cannot let one kid slip through the cracks,” said Stauss. “By doing what we’re doing, we know every single kid at our Squirt level is getting the exact same coaching. They’re getting it for the whole year.”
“We know every time they step on the ice they’re going to get a very good practice plan. It’s going to be organized. The coaches are going to be prepared. Kids are going to get their work in. They’re going to have fun, but they’re going to be moving.”
As the practices hone in on developing players skills through repetitions in station-based practices, the half-ice games will provide players more opportunities to apply those skills and concepts in game situations.
“We’re going to implement different types of games within those [half-ice] games,” said Stauss. “Create an offsides line. Create a line where players have to get across the center line before they can score, every player has to get across, forcing the kids to get up ice. There’s so many different things you can do to create game-like situations and also teach these kids different points about the game within a half-ice game.”
“Most importantly, it tightens up the area. The kids have to make plays. The kids have to be able to think and know the game in a lot higher speed than what they would if it was a full ice sheet.”
Early Results and Feedback
The new format was announced last April in an effort to communicate with parents early on and provide an opportunity for questions in advance of the season.
“The biggest push back we did receive was from our second-year squirts,” said Stauss. “They were accustomed to a Squirt A team on November 1st last year or whatever that date was. Now, all of a sudden that has changed. I understand it. It’s our job now, not necessarily to sell it to them, but prove it to them. They’re going to see it. Parents have seen it already.”
From the perspective of Eric Useldinger, whose son is a second-year squirt, there’s definitely a wait and see attitude among many of the parents, but what they’ve seen so far has been encouraging.
“For my son, I think it’s going to benefit him,” said Useldinger. “He’s not one of the top kids in the program. He’s up there, he’s a good player, but a lot of times full-ice at this age, there’s one or two or three kids that control the puck the whole time.”
“They get more opportunities to shoot the puck, to touch the puck [on half-ice]. I think it keeps them engaged a little more. It’s a big sheet of ice for nine-year-olds. If one kid is carrying the puck the whole time, the other kids are kind of just skating up and down the ice.”
He’s also noticed many of the same positives with the new practice format.
“He enjoys the practices,” said Useldinger. “He shoots the puck a lot more. He’s moving a lot more. There’s not as much standing around, where five kids run a drill while five kids sit there for a minute or two minutes. From what I’ve seen, they only sit for 30 seconds at the most, and they’re starting their drill or station.”
“The amount of reps, the amount of battles and the amount of skating they’re doing in a one-hour practice compared to what they did last year is night and day,” said Stauss.
And they know their focus on skills and repetitions are going to reap major benefits for the players and the program in the long run.