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Player-First Squirt Model Molds Peewee State Champs

By Steve Mann, 08/10/22, 11:15AM CDT


About three years ago, East Grand Forks made a somewhat controversial decision that profoundly changed its youth hockey landscape.

Breaking with long-held tradition and more typical approaches, the East Grand Forks Hockey Association charted a new course for its Squirt level, featuring in-house, half-ice games, and more frequent practices that bring the whole Squirt program together, rather than separate teams doing it on their own.

Drawing inspiration from various European models, with input from the local high school program, this small community, that had already enjoyed a fair share of hockey success, set out to impact all players at the 10U level with a unique plan that puts the players first.

The result is an increase in puck touches, repetitions, competitive contact, quick decision-making and more — all in close quarters.

According to Judd Stauss, youth development coordinator for East Grand Forks, it was about taking care of every kid in the program, at a crucial stage in their development.

“We want to make sure all of our players are getting the same type of practices, where their brains and feet have to work together,” he said. “We can’t have kids standing around. They have no choice but to get better in this practice or game setting. They’re always skating, always handling pucks, always being challenged.”

Changes on the Fly

Of course, any new approach, especially one that forces participants into abrupt change, will produce differences of opinion and likely multiple changes in direction. Some things will work well, others will require alterations along the way. The East Grand Forks Squirt program experienced some of both.

“Initially we had a lot of questions,” East Grand Forks Program Director Mark Dragich says with a laugh. “People looking at us funny, thinking we were nuts. “Once we started, a lot of that went away very quickly. We still get questions from people asking us about ‘when are we picking teams? When are we going to play someone else? When will we play full-ice games versus half-ice?’ We try to spell it out and not everyone understands. But the bulk of the people saw what was going on and either really liked what was going on or at least accepted it. To me it’s getting to be almost normal.”

“We’re changing every day,” Stauss added. “Some of it is because of feedback and trial and error but a lot of it depends on numbers. First year numbers dictated five-on-five play and we’ve shifted as needed since then. We’ve adjusted how often we change teams, or the levels playing against each other within games. Kids may find out they’re on the orange team and play together for a week or two and then it’s shuffled and they’re on another team. We want kids out there every other shift. We’re in constant motion to keep kids on their toes and keep them excited.”

The important thing to remember, according to Stauss, is that all of the changes made were with an eye on player development.

“It’s about doing what’s best for developing the kids,” said Stauss. “Our practices are incredible, with everyone practicing together, and that’s where they’re getting better. There are so many different hockey plays to work in. It could be a power turn, an escape, defending, as well as goaltending, taking more shots. All of those things are amplified in a half-ice game. We talk all the time that we think our Squirt program is up there with anybody. And it’s because of how we practice.”

East Grand Forks Shoots and Scores

Fast forward three seasons and it would be fair to call the East Grand Forks experiment a success. The results speak for themselves.

East Grand Forks won the Peewee A State Tournament title this spring. Its Squirt A, B1 and B teams swept the District 16 championships. East Grand Forks’ Bantam A team also won its State Tournament.

“When we started the program, the winning and losing part wasn’t a huge factor. It was always about development and trying to do the right thing for everybody,” said Dragich. “Now that first group of Peewees that went through the program has had success on the ice. Is there a correlation? I think there is. But that wasn’t the end-all-be-all goal.”

On top of the resulting on-ice success, the quantity of issues has declined, while the quality of play and level of acceptance has increased. And, while the adoption to a new way of doing things hasn’t been easy, and some may never fully be on board, it’s been a win-win for the community in many ways.

“The pushback or difficulty in year one was by far the toughest,” Stauss said. “It was a big change for those kids going from traditional full-ice type practices, to half-ice with everyone practicing together. Now we’ve developed a progression from Termites to Squirts that players accept and enjoy. It’s all they know. We’re at a point where every group through knows what to expect.”