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A Radical Approach to Youth Hockey, Part II

By Aaron Paitich, Touchpoint Media, 08/28/18, 8:15AM CDT


In July of 2017, Minnesota Hockey posted a feature taking an in-depth look at the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association’s decision to eliminate Squirt A “traveling” hockey. It was by far the most widely shared and talked about article that Minnesota Hockey has ever produced. It also sparked action among many leaders within Minnesota Hockey associations, who took a look and said, “Maybe we can do some things even better.” Here are some of those stories.

If it’s not broken, can you still fix it?

It would be easy for a hockey community like state championship-rich Edina to be complacent.

But in response to radical changes the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association made to its Squirt program, board members within the west metro powerhouse got to thinking:

Can we do better?

“It sort of had everyone in Minnesota talking and looking at ways for people to do something awesome like what Duluth is doing,” said Jim Dahline, who serves on the Edina Hockey Association board of directors. “We want to take the good qualities of what the Duluth program has established and put it inside a framework inside the realities of the way that hockey is organized down here in the metro.”

Communities like Edina and Saint Paul have taken new directions at the Mite level, while associations such as Greenway and Hastings continue to advocate for more development- and fun-based Squirt programs to increase and retain membership.

Saint Paul Youth Hockey Association

The season prior to the Duluth article being published, Jeff Wright recalls a similar urge to develop a better method as he was charged with forming the Mite teams in the St. Paul Capitols program.

“Like every other year, we just formed the teams based on ability with the most skilled kids on the ‘top’ team, and the lesser skilled or beginner kids on the ‘bottom’ team,” said Wright, who is now the president of the St. Paul association. “I remember thinking it just didn’t feel right, but for whatever reason, I didn’t have a better solution so I did what had always been done.”

Seeing what Duluth had done with Squirts, Wright immediately realized this was a blueprint they could use to provide a better experience for their youngest players. Saint Paul decided to act immediately, even as the new season was quickly approaching.

First, they thought about grouping them all into equal teams. But with kindergartners skating for the first time and more experienced kids who were previously on the A team, “there’s too much variance there,” Wright said.

So they took around 40 kids with more experience and skill and split them up into four A/B teams. They took the remaining group of about 40 kids into the C level and split them up into four equal teams. Weekend hockey was all in-house, with station-based practices on Saturdays and game day on Sundays.

“We put the boards up at center ice, we bought four of the smaller nets, and we let the kids play against their buddies,” Wright said. “They had just an awesome time.”

Another benefit of the new structure was coaching was more consistent for everyone.

“In this new setup, we had all of our coaches out on the ice together – the more experienced coaches and leaders, along with all the helpers and moms and dads,” Wright said.

A huge help was “buy in” from the parents of the Mite players. Typically, associations can be averse to change for fear of losing players to other programs.

“We explained to the parents what we were doing, and why,” explained Wright. “They all understood and were excited to be a part of it. That only got bigger once they saw how much fun the kids were having, and really, how much they were developing.”

Wright knows every association is different, but these philosophies and principles of long-term development are applicable not just to all youth hockey players, but all of youth sports.

“I’m not saying this [Mite hockey] model will work well for every association. But we learned about Duluth, looked at it, and said we can have a better experience for our Mites across the board instead of having such a variance in how people felt about their experience. I think we can make it more fun and have a super awesome time for the kids. At the end of the day, they’re kids. Let them play and have some fun with their buddies.”

Edina Hockey Association

Edina Hockey Association will be rolling out its new approach to Mite hockey this season. Previously, the kids were broken up into Development, Intermediate and Advanced groups at the 8U level.

There was little skill difference between Development and Intermediate players. But more experienced coaches were guiding the Intermediate kids, while newer- or first-time coaches – by no fault of their own – were leading the Development kids.

By combining the two into one pool – Intermediate – more experienced coaches could be allocated to serve every player.

“To get all of the kids up in skill sets, the Development kids would probably benefit from having those coaches with more experience,” said Dahline, who serves on the association’s Mite committee. “We’re evening out the teams in an attempt to even out the coaching across these teams.”

That Intermediate level now consists of eight teams, with all players distributed evenly, and they will compete in an in-house league, with a big blowout jamboree to finish the year.

“We’re really going to focus on the experience of the in-house league,” Dahline said. “We want to end the year with a tournament that the kids are really excited about. We’ll devote an entire day to it.”

The goal is to maximize fun and development for all who sign up for Mites, the lifeblood of any hockey community.

“We do value competing, as every association does. We all want state tournament teams and we want to build that up,” Dahline said. “The way you do that is by continuing to grow at the youngest levels and getting kids engaged, having fun and participating. The more that we can figure out ways to sort of bring in more kids and have their parents believe that they’re getting a good experience, building skills and having quality coaching, we feel that’s how we build a better experience for the next eight years after Mites.

Greenway Amateur Hockey Association

While Greenway is much smaller than Duluth, their approaches to Squirt hockey are similar. Like Duluth, all of Greenway Amateur Hockey Association’s Squirts play Squirt B.

“I think every situation’s different. When you get up in northern Minnesota, I don’t think Squirt A hockey is necessarily needed,” said Grant Clafton, Greenway’s High School Boys coach and 2018 Coach of the Year. “What we’re trying to do is keep kids involved and interested in hockey. It’s not about the level you’re playing at, but the level of effort you’re putting in. I think it’s really important for the coaches who are coaching these kids to be giving the proper development tools and teaching the right skill sets into these kids at this young of an age.”

Sure, there are always standout Squirts. But in Clafton’s mind, playing Squirt B will not hinder their development.

“There’s always going to be the three or four really gifted kids that are great Squirt A players, but very few of them continue on down that path and keep going because they played Squirt A hockey,” he continued. “Eventually, all the other kids that were slower developing will end up catching them and pass them by. That’s just the way it goes.”

Clafton reiterated that every community is different, and the proximity of programs in the Twin Cities cuts down on travel time and costs that northern and other outstate teams face.

“When you’re a young family and you have young kids starting out, $700 on the weekend traveling isn’t exactly the best way of keeping kids and families in the game and keeping our numbers up,” Clafton said.

And keeping more kids involved at the youngest levels leads to more great athletes thinking of themselves as hockey players when it becomes time to ratchet up the focus on training, something Clafton has seen with his own program.

For the three seasons he’s been at the helm, every member of Clafton’s Greenway High School teams played Squirt B. Greenway beat defending Class AA state champion Grand Rapids last year, and almost took down defending Class A champion Hermantown in the Section 7A final. Clafton also estimates he’ll have seven or eight kids that will play post-high school hockey with the opportunity to play college Division I in the future.

“They all played Squirt B hockey,” Clafton said. “If everybody stays committed to the long-term development plan – not just being the best Squirt or winning – that is the key. Everybody wants to win – I get that. But the key word is development.”

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