Last Saturday morning, amateur hockey coaches from all over New England gathered at Boston’s TD Garden for the fourth annual Boston Bruins’ Coaching Symposium. Guests had the opportunity to hear from the Bruins coaching staff, as well as members of the USA Hockey Staff. Each of the featured speaker’s fielded write-in questions from the amateur coaches in attendance, with the help of the event’s emcee, and Bruins color commentator, Andy Brickley.
The first speaker of the morning was the President of USA Hockey, Ron DeGregorio. The NH native started working with USA Hockey in 1973, serving as the President since 2003. His impressive body of work earned him the Lester Patrick Award in 2003, given for outstanding service to the game of hockey.
DeGregorio touched on what he sees as the three roles of USA Hockey, which were player development, participant retention (and growing the game), and reducing the inherent risks of the game.
“What we (at USA Hockey) try to do is give you as many tools as possible to make your job easier.”
It sounds simple enough, but DeGregorio was able to underscore the theme for the day with that one sentence. All of the speakers that followed shared knowledge and ideas that coaches could use to make their lives easier and enhance the experience for the players.
The Boston Bruins Coaching Staff followed DeGregorio, led by Head Coach Claude Julien. Each coach spoke to his particular role and responsibilities, while sharing tips for the coaches in attendance.
“One thing you need to do is manage your players and make sure (that) they get their proper rest. The biggest mistake you can make is trying to justify your job by practicing all the time.”
While this particular angle is more apparent in a professional setting, the message was one that many speakers would emphasize throughout the afternoon. That message, simply stated, is that while practice is crucial to player development, not overworking players is equally as important to the players’ success.
As Ron DeGregorio had pointed out, USA Hockey has focused their efforts on trying to improve player retention. One of the biggest challenges for amateur coaches, especially at the mite and squirt levels, is balancing player development with fun.
“You’ve got to set up a format that allows the younger kids that aren’t at the highest level (skill wise) to have success, to touch the puck, to feel good about themselves. You’ve got to create an environment that forces the better players to be challenged and to play without the puck. To have a lack of success once in a while, so when they get to peewees and they’re not scoring 4 or 5 goals a game, and they can’t just outskate everybody, they shut down and quit. 60% of the kids that start youth hockey in this region are out by peewees.”
In his individual breakout session, Roger Grillo, the Manager of the American Development Model (ADM) for USA Hockey, emphasized the importance of small area games. Small area games are drills that simulate game situations and are designed to help players develop a targeted set of skills. These drills, at the very least, have the same benefits of the seemingly tedious drills (ie. The “Loop and Shoot” drill), but they offer players a more fun practice environment.
“You must play games to develop. Not correct. We’ve got to train the brain. The mental part of the game is absolutely critical. It’s the skills that will allow the kids to move forward. You’ve got to be a good, smart hockey player to play at the next level.”
Both Grillo and Ken Martel identified a poor ratio of games to practices as a flaw in the youth hockey systems throughout Massachusetts. Martel, the Technical Director of the ADM for USA Hockey, pointed to the US National Under-18 Men’s team, as the gold standard for that ratio. This team, gold medalists in five of the last six World Junior Ice Hockey Championships, averages 130 practices per year, while only playing 50 games over that span. In Massachusetts, this ratio has been flipped, placing a greater emphasis on games and less focus on practice. This takes valuable development opportunities away from kids, making it more difficult for them to reach their potential.
Grillo also cited the decrease in Division I hockey players from Massachusetts over the last decade to support these recommended changes.
“We’ve lost almost 100 players in 10 years from this region, Massachusetts kids, playing at the highest level of college hockey.”
“We’re not doing a very good job of skill development. That’s forcing our college coaches, at the highest level, to go other places, to Canada, to Europe, to find players that can play at that level.”
Considering that this number is based on the projection of between 80 and 90 Massachusetts players participating in Division I hockey programs in 2014-2015, that’s a staggering loss.
With the changes that USA Hockey is driving, hockey programs across Massachusetts will be on the rise over the next few years. Beyond that, the Boston Bruins’ commitment to improving youth hockey in Massachusetts should inspire a great deal of confidence in players and families alike across the Commonwealth.
For more information about USA Hockey, be sure to check out here.
For more information about the Boston Bruins’ commitment to youth hockey, check out here.