One only needs to look at recent results to determine that things are going pretty well for USA Hockey. At the international level, the Americans won silver at the 2019 World Junior Championship, they’ve dominated the world under-18s for years and have claimed five straight gold medals at the women’s worlds.
In the NHL draft, this year’s crop will feature one of the best showings for the National Team Development Program ever, with Jack Hughes the favorite to go first overall to the New Jersey Devils and at least six of his teammates expected to go in the first round with him.
There are reasons for the success of hockey in the U.S., but ultimately, it all starts at the grassroots level. That’s where the American Development Model has attempted to make an impact, and with the initiative entering its 10th season in 2019-20, it’s worth looking into how the program came into being and what the future is for American hockey.
For those involved with its implementation, the goals are lofty. “Look at what we’ve been able to do, and we still have far to go,” said Ken Martel, USA Hockey’s technical director of the ADM. “We want to be the No. 1 hockey nation in the world.”
A little more than a decade ago, things seemed to be going pretty well for the United States – but the stakeholders wanted to take a look under the hood nonetheless. From 1990 to 2001, participation numbers in the U.S. had nearly doubled. By 2007-08, however, the U.S. had lost about 40,000 boys from its talent pool. “Our growth was in girls and adults,” Martel said. “Our overall numbers were up, so it was hidden for awhile.”
Now, getting more girls into hockey is fantastic, but participation is not a zero-sum game – there is no correlation between a loss of boys and the uptick in girls. So what was happening to those boys? And in a more general sense, why wasn’t the U.S. winning more international medals, given the size of the population and the number of rinks in the country?
It got the folks at USA Hockey thinking about how the game was being taught at the grassroots level across the country and how that could be improved. The ADM was born, and USA Hockey’s crown jewel, the NTDP, actually helped the philosophy.
The NTDP itself was formed in 1996 in an attempt to improve the nation’s results at the world juniors, and that process yielded important lessons. “We had pros and college coaches coming together, and we figured out pretty quickly that we couldn’t treat these young NTDP kids like college players,” Martel said. “So what could we put out from those experiences to the youth levels?”
The keys to the ADM were age-appropriate guidelines that emphasize practices over games, participation in sports other than hockey year-round, and for the youngest skaters, a minimum number of cross-ice or half-ice games and practices each season. The last point has been the most controversial, and since the ADM is more suggested than enforced, there have been rebellious organizations in the U.S. that believe children of all ages should play full ice, regardless of their size and stamina. “It’s hit or miss,” Martel said. “People don’t like change. I look at some of the early adapters and they’re doing fantastic. It boggles my mind that other programs still think mites should play full ice.”
Former NHL player Matt Ellis is one of many grassroots coaches who have taken cues from the ADM. As the head of development at the Academy of Hockey in Buffalo, which works with (but is independent from) the Buffalo Jr. Sabres program, Ellis really keys in on age-appropriate curriculum for the boys and girls who come through the Academy. “Everything is progression-based,” Ellis said. “We might take something we do with our older kids that works and scale it back for the younger ages. You add layers to the original foundation. Along the way we do a ‘foundation check.’ How do we fix what is not connecting?”
When it comes to cross-ice hockey, Ellis sees a tool that can be utilized along with other drills and practices. “You’re filling buckets and taking the best of both worlds,” he said. “That’s the way the kids are learning.”
At the Academy, there are certain tenets established that Ellis believes works in favor of a child’s development. There is the 1:4 coach-to-player ratio, for example, which leads to more connectivity between the teacher and student and a better overall learning environment. Breaking kids into smaller groups and engaging in small-area games also ups the skill quotient. “The kids get more puck touches and thought processes,” Ellis said. “They get an understanding of time, space and changes in speed.”
Also key to the ADM is the network of regional managers who get the message out. This group often includes former pros or college players. “They are the critical arm to the success of this,” said Kevin McLaughlin, USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey development. “They are the boots on the ground, in the rinks every night and running more than 700 coaching clinics every year. They have the street cred, but they can also see the gaps and missing pieces we need to fill in.”
Perhaps the most important message of the ADM is to keep the game fun. It sounds a little airy, but given how much competition there is out there for a child’s attention, it is crucial to retention. Martel believes that hockey in North America ramps up too fast, and that can lead to burnout. “With 14- to 16-year-olds, they just don’t have the emotional energy left in the tank,” he said. “They’ve already been dragged to every rink across the country.”
According to the ADM, an appropriate number of games per season for peewees (players aged 12 and under), for example, is 30-35, with 80-90 practices over a seven-month training calendar. Key to this concept is making sure kids play other sports in the meantime.
This is a constant in the origin stories of NHLers, from Wayne Gretzky and Joe Nieuwendyk to Auston Matthews and Steven Stamkos. Ellis himself played everything from soccer and baseball to high school football as a kid, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was outside playing non-structured games with his friends. “We believe in building the athlete and the person,” he said. “We encourage our athletes to play other sports. It’s part of the process, but it’s also fun. You can love more than one thing. The best players are usually the best athletes, and the journey for all of them is unique. I remember the days of hanging up the gear (in the spring) and that was that.”
The Academy builds in down time in its schedule, and at USA Hockey, there is an edict to make sure coaches don’t get territorial when it comes to their players being involved in other sports.
When the ADM plans began, the Americans looked at other hockey nations to see what was working. The Canadian group Sport for Life was a big influence, while European countries such as Finland and Sweden proved that population does not determine success. If the Americans want to reach their goal of being the best, they’ll have to surpass those countries that influenced them.
Since the implementation of the ADM, numbers are up and, yes, the boys are coming back and staying in the game. “Big picture, we’re just scratching the surface,” McLaughlin said. “We’re happy with what we’ve done so far, but there is always more work to do.”