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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Too Much Too Soon

Hockey, like many but not all sports, is very competitive. Hockey players typically, by nature, are very competitive. They pretty much have to be. Hockey coaches and hockey parents are as well. Competition is good. It’s healthy. In most cases.

Sometimes our competitive nature gets the best of us and we go too far too fast. In striving to jump out to a lead or to win the race we get caught up in the short-term and lose sight of the big picture.

Girls hockey in Michigan is a perfect example of that. In an effort to get ahead or stay ahead we often tend to make poor short-term decisions that don’t pay off in the long run. Not because we want to, but more likely because we don’t know any better or we have pressure that forces us to bite off more than we can chew.

If Tier II hockey is good, then Tier I hockey must be better, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on how you choose to look at it. And it depends on when you look at it. And it depends on from whose perspective you choose to look at it.

Its human nature for players to want to play at the highest level and for parents to feel proud about their children being able to play at the highest level. I see plenty of SUV window stickers with “Such and Such” Travel Hockey or AAA Hockey on them but I don’t recall ever seeing one that said “Such and Such” House Hockey.

Just a middle and a top
In Michigan we pretty much have two levels of girls hockey, Tier I and Tier II. Unfortunately for girls there are really no other levels besides those even though there is a classification called Tier II House/Rec, but it has very few teams.

It really is very much different than boys hockey where there are three very different levels: house or B hockey with teams formed by draft, A/AA hockey with teams formed by tryouts and limited to a maximum of three out of district players and AAA hockey with teams formed by tryouts and no restrictions on where the players come from.

There is very much a base on which the boys hockey structure is built. There are typically more house or B teams at each age group than there are A/AA teams and there are more A/AA teams in each age group than there are AAA teams. The top level is fed from the middle level which is fed from the bottom level. While it is definitely not a perfect system, it does at least work to a certain degree.

The girls world is much different. There is essentially no house hockey for girls. There is a Tier II or “travel” level of play with teams formed by tryouts. There is a Tier I level of play with teams formed by tryouts. There really is not any difference between Tier I and Tier II other than what the teams choose to call themselves. And there are no district restrictions in girls hockey.

But worst of all, there are not the number of players that there are in boys hockey. There is no structure in place for the bottom to feed the middle to feed the top. In fact there is no bottom. Just a middle and top. With nothing underneath to support it.

Girls essentially start as Tier II players and more often than not they are in a hurry to get to Tier I as quickly as they can. While that is not a bad thing for them as individuals, it is not necessarily a good thing for girls hockey in Michigan.

Checking the numbers
Let’s look at some numbers. In the current hockey season in the LCAHL and TOEHL there are sixteen 12U girls teams in Michigan with five of them being Tier I and eleven Tier II. At 14U there are four Tier I teams and seven Tier II, five Tier I and five Tier II at 16U and five Tier II and four Tier I at 19U. There are also fourteen girls high school teams in the Metro Detroit area. Additionally there are a few girls teams sprinkled around throughout the state, but they are few and far between and it is difficult for them to find teams to play against.

I have coached girls Tier II hockey for seven years and girls Tier I hockey for two. At the risk of hurting anyone’s feelings I can tell you that for the most part there is not a whole lot of difference between the two in terms of the majority of the players. I have seen girls who have played Tier I drop back into Tier II and be average players. The majority of girls in each age group would fit into the large part of the bell in a bell curve if you combined the two Tiers. There are exceptional players on the top end of Tier I and there are extremely inexperienced players on the bottom end of Tier II. But the vast majority of players in between could easily be either average to above average Tier II players or average to below average Tier I players.

For some perspective, let’s look at girls hockey numbers in Minnesota where they do not have Tier I girls hockey. In the girls 12U A classification in Minnesota there are 58 teams and there are 42 teams in the 14U A division. At the High School level there are 57 Class A teams and 68 Class B teams. Some pretty impressive numbers. Not surprisingly if you look at the USA Hockey national team rosters you will find Minnesota well represented. More players playing always results in more better players as they mature. It’s that simple.

Only a label
So what’s the difference in the two states? We both like to think of ourselves as the Mecca of Hockey. Minnesota has more community-owned arenas with stipulations that females receive their fair share of ice time. That is a factor. There is more opportunity for girls to get started playing in Minnesota. Plus there is the opportunity for girls to represent their high school on the ice.

But the other main difference is that there is not the Tier I status that we are so enamored with here in Michigan. I coach in a Tier I program but I will be the first to tell you that the Tier I programs are Takers. We add little or nothing to the game but reap the benefits from it. Why? Because we can. Players want to play for us and parents want their players to play for us. Whether the players really are of Tier I caliber or not. If you are playing in a Tier I league you must be a Tier I player, right?

But the label really means nothing. The majority of the players fit into the middle with extremes at either end. However, our tiering structure forces an upward sucking of players with the Tier I programs benefitting from the spadework of the Tier II programs.

Unlike boys hockey, there is no B or house hockey to feed Tier II girls. As a result they sputter and spin their wheels and each year there might or might not be a team in a given association. Which means there might or might not be a place for girls to play and that ultimately means less girls playing.

In our quest to get to the top, to achieve so much so soon, we are mortgaging the future of girls hockey in our state.


  1. Having played hockey (boys) in Minnesota and now coaching girls in Michigan, I think you have written a very accurate account of girls hockey in both states.

    One area you did not address is that in MN you basically try out and play for the team in your community - which builds strong ties to that program. In Mn, a young boy or girl starts off playing for their City's team (house or travel), goes to their High School Hockey games and dreams of ultimately playing for that HS team.

    Because players are not "program jumping" every year, they build lasting friendships and basically have more fun - which is a main reason most girls play hockey.

    This system also is successful in that most of the better players play on their HS Team and not a Tier 1 Travel team.

    Basically, I'm saying that the Minnesota model of community based teams helps keep girls in hockey.

  2. Completely agree with the article, but the author moved from Tier 2 to Tier 1--I am sure there are good reasons, but the solution needs to begin and not just be "observed." Our own actions as parents and coaches feed the perception either by "promoting" or "taking" girls from Tier 2 or our own desire to be the best. Minnesota's numbers are awesome--so why isn't Michigan following a template that works?

  3. Whereas I agree with much of what you say, what do you affiliate the success of Michigan program on the National level too? Primarily the success of the U19 and the U16 programs?