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Monday, February 8, 2010

Playing the game

It was a little over a year ago that we first heard the two 3-word phrases that have been on the lips of many people in the hockey world ever since - American Development Model (better known as the ADM) and High Performance Clubs (also more commonly referred to as the HPC).
At first there was a great deal of confusion and a considerable amount of angst from those who immediately perceived the new concepts as restrictive in nature, potentially robbing their child of an opportunity. To do what, they really weren’t sure. But if there was going to be a change, in their minds it certainly wasn’t going to be for the better for their hockey player.

Others instantly proclaimed the ADM concept to be the best thing since the goalie mask. The game was going to be revolutionized, with elite American players to be produced in record numbers.

Here in Michigan there was extensive prognostication and debate over which programs would be anointed with the High Performance Club seal of approval, instantly making them the odds on favorites to attract all of the best players in the area to their teams. Plans began to be made, alliances were formed and the wheels of change started to roll forward.

Taking shape
Questions? There were plenty of those. There still are. Over a year later. But there are also a lot more answers now than there were this time last year as well. USA Hockey staffers have crisscrossed the country making countless presentations detailing the research, thought and science behind the concept. Program Managers have been hired and assigned to sections of the country to continue to spread the message. Plans have begun to be unveiled. The structure is starting to take shape.

I have heard the presentations several times and they are thorough and impressive. Yet, it probably wouldn’t hurt me to hear it a few more times. Might be age, might be too many concussions. But I do understand the thought process. The child development research is clear to me. It all makes complete sense. I have lived it and seen it over and over again and again in the forty some years that I have been involved in hockey.

As a parent and coach I have also witnessed the results of a similar philosophy utilized in youth soccer. It makes sense. It works in soccer.

Change is never easy. It is much more difficult when one believes that they are losing out in the change, going backward. Resistance to change is guaranteed. People need proof. People want results. But results take time.

And while I very much believe in and agree with much of the philosophy presented in the ADM and HPC models, I still do have questions too. What exactly will it look like? What will the initial effect be? How will things be changed two years down the road? Five years? They are all questions that can’t be answered until we actually live it. The truth is nobody really knows for certain what the impact on the game will be. Short term or long term.

Better players and more of them
While there are a number of different elements to the ADM, to sum it up in a nutshell it is about producing more better players. By making the game more affordable and user-friendly at the entry levels the hope is to attract more participants. By providing those participants with a more productive environment in which to train and play the hope is to develop more players who have the opportunity to play the game at a higher level, if that is what they choose to do.

From that respect the model makes a great deal of sense to me. Our current structure, particularly here in Michigan, is probably the poster child for much of what is wrong with youth hockey and why we produce so comparatively few high-end players from participation numbers that are always in the top three in the nation.

We begin tryouts as young as seven, when kids have minimal skating and playing experience, with just enough skill for coaches to somewhat discern the select few to make the grade. And it should come as no surprise that the bigger, more mature are the ones who most often do so.

From there, those selected players typically get the more experienced coaches, and more importantly usually skate three times per week as opposed to the two that the house leaguers who couldn’t make the cut get. It doesn’t require scientists and researchers to figure out which kids have the best opportunity to turn out to be the better players given those differences.

Skimming the cream
And that’s where it gets tricky. The parents of that group don’t want to lose out on the early edge that their child has. Why should their kid be held back? He can skate. He can play. Seven year old Mite A hockey can actually look "pretty good". Relatively speaking. NHL hockey is pretty good too. But when the world’s best players get together for the Olympics in a couple of weeks we will be treated to a level of play that we only get to see once every four years.

The point is that whenever you skim the cream off of the top, it is going to look pretty good compared to the milk. At least for a while. So how do we keep that cream from going sour while giving the rest of the milk an opportunity to catch up?

Here in Michigan we don’t do a very good job of that. And until you have been through it and seen what it is like at the other end, it is very difficult for the parent of a "good" Mite player to understand that less really might be more for their child. A lot can happen between the ages of 7 and 17. More games, more travel, more tournaments and more A’s behind the team name don’t always translate into more in terms of playing hockey at the higher levels.

Actually our system doesn’t do a very good job of providing a development opportunity for any players. The ones that don’t make the cut early on get too little. The early maturers, who do make that critical early cut, then play in a system that doesn’t necessarily translate into allowing them to become good hockey players.

I get that. I agree with that. But I also wonder how much that really matters. More better players would be a wonderful byproduct of a great hockey program. But I don’t necessarily think it should be the most important consideration in creating one.

More importantly
In my opinion there are two much more important elements. First it is the financial viability of ice arenas. If there is no place to play, then none of it really matters. If the ADM translates into more players, as is proposed, then that would be great. More players playing a more affordable game for all would be a plus.

But more importantly, I don’t think we should lose sight of the most important three word phrase: Playing the game. It is play. It is a game. No matter how we slice it up and market it with names like AAA and Elite or sell development and performance, at the end of the day it is all just recreational hockey. People choose to play. Or not. We need to make sure that the game is attractive enough for them to play.

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