Can you imagine not keeping score during your child’s 12U/Peewee game? Not recording statistics or standings throughout the season? Having every child on the team try goalie? Or taking the whistles out of practice? What about eliminating the practice of “cutting” kids?
Former Minnesota Duluth Bulldog and Blaine High School standout Dan Jablonic played and coached professional hockey in Sweden, and has been exposed to the many different development philosophies in Europe. Spoiler alert: they do things differently.
The USA Hockey ADM Regional Manager shared some of these foreign concepts and cultural differences.
Emphasis on Skills, Not Stats or Standings
Sweden leads the world in producing elite hockey players per capita. Last year, the country tied their previous record of 28 players selected in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, including six first-round and eight second-round selections. By comparison, there were six first round and four second-round selections of players from the United States, which has more than seven times as many Under-20 players as Sweden.
"The Swedes changed their system of training young players about 15 years ago and are now reaping the benefits," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb told NHL.com. "They're concentrating more on the individual skills and they're also trying to have their junior league games over the weekend so that players can practice more during the week."
One of the most eye-opening changes made by the Swedes was they eliminated standings and statistics at the 13-and-Under level.
From The Athletic:
Now, for kids under-13 in Sweden, there are no standings. Scores are kept during the games, but at the end of it there’s no written record of wins or losses — it’s immaterial. There are no individual stats kept for the regular season or for tournaments at the U13 level. They play games, but there are no tryouts and no real “leagues” as such for those ages. The focus is more on skill development and less on wins and losses.
“There’s not an emphasis on stats or standings over there,” Jablonic said. “They don’t get caught up in that or in cutting kids. Their whole goal when kids first put on their skates is they want them to grow and play on their local pro club.”
There’s no rush to start separating players by skill level while they’re still children in Europe.
“The parents don’t have to get in such a race to have their kid be on the best 8U, 10U or 12U team. Everybody play, everybody develop, play different positions,” Jablonic said. “Even when they start to cut kids – potentially at age 15 or so – they will have other teams for those kids to continue developing. So they can still work with those coaches and aspire to get better and still be in the loop.”
Less Whistles, More Player Autonomy
Coaches in Europe use their whistles less, and let their players experiment more.
“They build in the pond hockey mentality. The mentality of ‘OK, it’s the players’ game,’” Jablonic said. “They hardly ever use their whistles. And if you think about it, it makes sense. There are not a lot of whistles in the game.”
Coaches often let players start drills based on cues from their teammates.
“So the kid across from you – you’re looking at him or her. You have to start at the same time if we’re participating in this drill, so it kind of builds in that deeper meaning of what it means to be a teammate,” Jablonic added. “Because if I start early, I’m cheating. I’m not supporting my team if I’m going at different times. Little cues like that, where it’s not always the coach being the dictator, saying ‘You’re going to start on my whistle and you’re going to stop on my whistle.’
Putting a Premium on the Goaltending Position
How has Finland, a country with the population of around 5.5 million people, been able to produce so many NHL goaltenders? Kids play every position – including goaltender – until the age of 10. Each hockey club provides free goaltender equipment, and each team has a goalie coach.
“They are putting that position where it should be: on a pedestal,” Jablonic said. “They say, ‘Hey, this is a great position. It’s fun. It’s challenging. We’re going to give you the tools to do it by having dedicated coaches, whether it’s a house rec team or whatever. They give them the tools and the resources. They’re creating that culture where kids want to play goalie.”
Holistic View of Development
In Europe, Jablonic observed a more holistic view of development. There was a clear plan and progression in place not just for the next practice, but for the entire season.
“Any hockey coach can go out there and wing it, but they actually take the time to make a practice plan that makes it clear what you’re working on,” Jablonic said. “Is there a flow? Is there a progression in what you’re trying to teach? Is there an opportunity for kids to learn on their own? And then keep track of that. They keep logs of all their practices. Their youth directors work with all the coaches and keep open lines of communication.
And those practice plans include off-ice training – for all ages.
“They’ll do off-ice training that will lead to on-ice success,” Jablonic said. “Maybe it’s a concept of body contact. When I was in Sweden, they built a ton of off-ice body contact drills where kids are all in their equipment except for their skates, and then they’re doing all these drills and techniques. As soon as they got on the ice, they did the same things.”
Dryland drills and games can build a variety of skills and help build well-rounded athletes.
“They have to learn their bodies and they have to have that progression as they move up from the younger ages to the older ages,” Jablonic said. “They not only have to get stronger and more agile but they have to be better athletes, and that all comes with a concerted plan of off-ice and dryland training.”
Doing More with Less
When discussing athletic development around the world, one cannot ignore Norway’s dominance in the 2018 Winter Olympics. With a population of just 5.3 million, the Norwegians captured 39 medals – approximately 7.33 medals per million people, compared to the United States, which won 23 medals with a population north of 326 million.
So what are they doing that’s unique?
Norwegian clubs do not record game scores until age 13. They encourage kids to play multiple sports at least through the age of 15 and beyond. There are many other structural and cultural differences in Norway’s sport system.
“You look at these small countries and they are essentially doing more with less,” Jablonic said. “They’re not setting out to say, we’re going to have all of these Olympic athletes. They’re saying, we’re going to create good experiences. We’re going to create all kinds of different athletes. We’re going to give them the best age-appropriate training and environment that we can to let them thrive. We’re not going to train our 8-year-olds like they’re on the high school team. I think that’s a big key to their success. They develop that culture over time. Those countries are flourishing as the developmental leaders.”
Jablonic believes the ADM is putting American hockey on that same path to long-term growth, development and success. It won’t happen overnight, but each positive step that local teams can take to develop all players will help those players and the game in the long run.