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The Modern Age of Minor Hockey

By Kristopher Bras on April 26, 2017
Justin Sinclair photography

The game of hockey is evolving all the time, and the same is true for the tools available to minor hockey associations. But in a hockey system populated with old-school veterans of the game who have always used the same management strategies, are teams making the most of the resources available to them?

In this issue, HockeyNow breaks down what it means to run a hockey team in the modern age, with a focus on the innovation and science behind managing a team and the developing resources, trends and technologies available to coaches and association executives.

Where Does the Money Go?
As anyone who has ever associated with rep hockey can confirm, competitive play is expensive. Even Peewee and Atom players can rack up registration fees in the thousands (perhaps more for high-profile programs), not including equipment and other costs. This also doesn’t account for the sponsorships most of these teams garner. So where does the money go?

For most minor hockey programs, allocating funds can quite the intricate balancing act. Due to rising rink and league fees, most teams see 75 to 80 per cent of their funds dissipate just in getting onto the ice. Aside from that, team managers also need to build a program that keeps kids engaged and having fun. That means parties, tournaments, custom uniforms and special instruction. 

Without a steady stream of committed volunteers, minor hockey could not persist.

“We run purely on volunteers. There is no paid position in our association. Without that help, we would never survive,” said Dwayne Yetman, President of the Bell Island Minor Hockey Association in Newfoundland.

Because an all-star team of volunteers is so crucial to running a successful hockey program, sport councils and governing bodies work to provide easy-to-access learning materials about how to do this efficiently (see sidebar for more information). 

Guidance from Hockey Canada
Though there are many sport councils providing free educational materials to minor sport associations, the most relevant skills resources will always come directly from Hockey Canada. Hockey Canada provides guidance to every minor hockey association in Canada, from house league to AAA.

“We use the Hockey Canada model for kids from the time they step on the ice in initiation program, right up to midget. We follow the model as close as we can,” said Yetman, whose coaches utilize Hockey Canada development principles to help players who are on different learning paths.

“Our biggest issue with it is, we have such a diverse skill level, on our teams, so we incorporate it throughout the season, and we have a little bit of extra practice time than most teams,” he said.

Finding the Right Coaches
Hockey Canada also makes it easy for teams to find qualified, certified coaches. Hockey Canada has strategic certification requirements for any coach that wishes to run a minor hockey team. This gives minor hockey associations the confidence to allow coaches to run their team without much oversight.

“Our philosophy in HEO (Hockey Eastern Ontario), which is run by Hockey Canada, they certify our coaches. When they come to us, they’re experienced, and they have their certifications. So our expectation is that they’re going to have a lot of economy to run their program the way they want,” said Bruce McPherson, Director of Program Development with the Ottawa Valley Titans, one of the most prestigious minor hockey programs in Ontario.

All minor hockey coaches must get increasingly complex levels of certification depending on the level of minor hockey they wish to coach.

Assistant coaches, trainers and managers must get either Speak-Out or Respect in Sport certifications (both from Hockey Canada).
Online educational materials

Coaches who continue to look to Hockey Canada for guidance throughout their careers find an ever-increasing library of resources and teachable values, many of which are reflected on provincial minor hockey websites. For example, the Ontario Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) has devoted a portion of its website to promoting Hockey Canada’s Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) initiative.

Other resources include the Learn to Play initiation program and easily accessible downloads like the Minor Hockey Development Guide.

Unfortunately, many coaches are either unaware of these resources, or choose not to use them. 

“We haven’t used them yet, no. Most of the guys I’ve talked to have never even mentioned it,” said Pat Mazzoli, Head Coach of the AAA Midget Don Mills Flyers.

That’s because the best hockey programs in Ontario are mostly run by old-school guys who have been around for decades. And they’ve been unknowingly informing the creation of these resources for years. One example (and one of the most useful) is Hockey Canada’s Drill Hub.

“To be honest, I’ve been sticking to the (player development strategies) I’ve been doing since day one. I do go online now and then when I’m trying to change up my practices, and look for new drills,” said Russ Broadbent, Head Coach of the Midget Centre Hastings Grizzlies.

“I used a lot of Hockey Canada drills from Drill Hub,” said Jordan Johnson, Head Coach of the AAA Major Peewee Ottawa Senators. “I would take a shooting drill, and I would add and manipulate it for a 12-year-old or higher. I think it’s great…and I think it can be used at all levels because you can either buff it up or dumb it down.”

Dealing with Parents
Most of the coaches we talked to agreed that the hardest part about running a modern team is dealing with the parents that have high expectations, and are constantly hounding coaches with negative feedback.

“Dealing with the parents has gotten harder and harder. Everybody thinks their child is better, and going to the show,” said Broadbent.

For coaches, cc’ed email exchanges make it easier for them to communicate with parents in a way that can’t be twisted around on them, replicating an in-person interview with witnesses.

“(Email) helps,” said Johnson. “I would never have an interview with a parent, without another person or two in the room. I would never have a child in the room, and have a meeting with them, without other people around. Why would you put yourself in a situation where your words can be turned on you?”

Johnson also thought that parents would give coaches more breathing room if they understood the plan in place for their child.  

“I think that what parents are looking for, is they want to know practice plans. They want to know developmental plans. They want to know everything that’s going on.”

Hockey Canada created a mobile application called TeamHub that allows coaches to do just that. Coaches can share practice schedules, on-the-fly video, and rink directions with parents in real-time. Unfortunately, the app is so underutilized that development for it has fallen behind the standard for up-to-date mobile operating systems. It didn’t work on my Android device, and it has only been downloaded from the Google Play store 1,000 times. 

None of the team executives or coaches we interviewed were aware of the app’s existence.

The Future of Player Selection
Most of the people we spoke with also agreed that players often lack mental and intangible skills when they get to the midget level. Although they often have well-developed shooting skills, coaches are more often looking for speed and grit to add to their programs.

“We look for a certain type of player. Number one: a speed player. A gritty player that likes to go into the corners and get pucks. We try to teach a system of forecheck, a 2-1-2 type of thing. A 2-3 defensive press. We try to show kids that the more you press the puck, the more opportunity you have to get the puck, because people are going to make mistakes with the puck,” said Mazolli.

In order instil these types of skills at a younger age, Mazolli believes that there needs to be a massive change in how teams are ran – starting with atom-age kids.

“In terms of developing kids, what I think we need to do here in Canada is bring in non-player coaches at a young age, to develop these kids all the way up,” Mazolli explained.

This reflects what is in fact already happening in some of the low-registration house league associations, like Bell Island.

“Most of our coaches start out with their own kids in our initiation program, and they follow them through their whole hockey career,” said Yetman.

However, Mazolli believes a higher-calibre coach can deploy the strategy more effectively. 

“Guys with résumés, guys with HP1s, and stuff like that, to take these kids. Say to them: You’re going to develop this team from minor atom to minor midget – you’ve got them. And I think that way, you’d be able to develop these kids a lot better.”

Bringing Team Operations Into the Present
From managing financial challenges to providing quality hockey experiences, running a minor hockey team is a complex job. Luckily, the growing prevalence of web-based educational resources has afforded minor hockey managers, presidents and coaches alike access to a knowledge base that is growing larger and more accessible every day. 

Although these resources may be less useful to those whose work has informed their creation, they have invaluable potential for young coaches, hockey parents and house leagues. It may take awhile for online resources and mobile apps to make their way into the daily practices of traditional minor hockey associations, but they could solve some of the problems that have grown more acute in recent years—like concussions (see sidebar) and parent communication. 

With problem solving potential like that, even the old-school guys may decide look at their cell phones more often. 

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By Kristopher Bras| April 26, 2017
Categories:  Minor Hockey

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