When Ken Martel makes the presentation for the new American Development Model program, he kicks it off with a video clip of John F. Kennedy’s 1962 pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
While such an example may be viewed as hyperbole, Martel’s point is that changing the hockey culture in the United States is no less ambitious, or daunting.
But that’s exactly what this revolutionary new development program is designed to do. When carried out to the fullest, it will change the way hockey is viewed, played and coached in the United States. And the end result will be a more skilled and passionate group of players at all age levels, and ultimately more players in the National Hockey League.
The NHL is so convinced that this is the right way to go that it is investing a considerable amount of money into the program starting with the 2009-10 season.
“The program is absolutely fantastic,” says Brian Burke, general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the general manager for the 2010 U.S. Olympic Men’s Team. “I know its implementation will take some time, but the principles behind the program are dead on.”
The program features several components, but the most prevalent are programs that bolster the quality and quantity of American players.
“The NHL wants more American players, more American coaches and more American referees. They also want more fans now and in the future. Coincidently, this is exactly what USA Hockey wants. It’s that simple,” says Jim Smith, who oversees USA Hockey’s Player Development Committee that is spearheading this effort.
“To do that we have to develop better referees, better coaches and better players. The only way to do that is to look at what we are currently doing and ask how can we take this objective to the next level. That’s what this program is all about — growth and skill development.”
Last season, there were 140 American players in the NHL, which equates to 20 percent of the league. USA Hockey has set an ambitious goal of increasing its ranks in the NHL to 30 percent. That works out to an increase of 70 additional players per season.
The National Team Development Program, in its first 10 years of operation, has done a great job of developing players. This has caught the eye of NHL brass, many of whom want to see more American talent on their rosters.
While every piece of the pie is important, and will be thoroughly discussed in future issues of USA Hockey Magazine, it’s the development portion that has garnered the lion’s share of the focus thus far.
And for good reason. Dubbed the American Development Model, this is a monumental step toward changing the hockey culture that many believe has only scratched the surface of the true potential of American hockey talent.
“This is a transformation for better opportunity for growth, both individually and for the sport. That’s why I’m excited,” says USA Hockey President Ron DeGregorio.
The Long-Term Athlete Development principles behind the program are nothing new. It has been widely accepted and followed by other sports, and elements have been used by other hockey cultures such as Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic, where they have far less players than the United States but have created a reputation for developing high-level players.
The LTAD was developed by Istvan Balyi, an internationally recognized coaching educator, and is based on a consensus of global research on how young people develop sporting ability linking more closely coaching and development of players to their physical and psychological growth.
The project began as a plan to evaluate and develop an expanded high performance track for elite athletic development. It quickly became apparent that would barely scratch the surface of its potential.
Armed with an impressive amount of scientific data, which is posted on USAHockeyMagazine.com and USAHockey.com, USA Hockey architects took the plan a step further by creating a bottom-to-top system of player development that will create better athletes, not just hockey players, while instilling in them a passion to play the game long after their competitive days are over.
The American Development Model will monitor the number of games a team plays in a season, enforce practice-to-game ratios and focus on age appropriate athletic training and fun at the 6- to 9-year-old levels by concentrating on five of the eight stages of athlete development – fundamentals (Mites), learn to train (Squirts & Peewees), train to train (Bantam & Midget Minor), learn to compete (Midget Major) and train to compete (Juniors). There would also be extensive off-ice training programs that include established time off to play other sports.
“We know that there are some excesses and some issues in priorities, what comes first. The model of today is not the model that a lot of us grew up in. We played different sports and learned a little bit from each of them,” says Joe Bertagna, the commissioner of Hockey East and executive director of the American Hockey Coaches Association.
“There’s a lot of early specialization now, which robs some kids of the basic athletic skills and just enjoying the game. Kids are leaving the sport at increasingly early ages.”
Because sports science shows that kids physically mature and develop at different rates, the key will be to provide equal opportunities to players in order to give everyone the opportunity to fully reach his or her genetic potential.
That means, under the new development model, Mites, Squirts and Peewees will no longer be divided into current levels, which puts a select few on a fast track with more ice time, better coaches, etc. Every player under the age of 13 will receive similar ice time and have access to the same quality coaches and age appropriate training programs.
Once players reach the 13-year-old threshold, the high performance club league will begin. Other opportunities, such as Tier I, Tier II and recreational hockey, will still be available to the balance of players.
Under the high performance club model, teams would be created for 13 & Under, 14 & Under, 15 & Under, 16 & Under and 18 & Under. Another difference would be in team composition, allowing flexible player movement within the club system to address a player’s individual development.
The initial goal is to create a 36 (approximately) club league, separated into six (approximately) regions, with clubs playing regionally to minimize travel costs. In addition to a set number of regular season games, there would be several showcases held throughout the year, with a finals’ week that would operate separate of the current National Championship system.
“This is an add-on to the USA Hockey infrastructure that we currently have,” says DeGregorio. “We’re still going to have the Tier I programs, we’re still going to have the same kinds of programs that we have now.”
Clubs that apply for a spot in the program must meet the established criteria of supporting a complete American Development Model, from Mite programs through Midget level teams. Each team must agree to adhere to specific guidelines, which include practice-to-game ratios, established down times, off-ice training regimens and much more.
Programs will exist under the watchful eye of a national director, with regional managers working with both the high performance clubs as well as other associations in the area eager to take advantage of the ADM coaching and training resources.
Every program in the country is encouraged to follow the same guidelines, and will have access to the same training and sports science information as the high performance clubs.
From the top down, the leadership of USA Hockey knows that this change won’t be easy, and it will face some challenges moving forward.
That’s fine by USA Hockey’s Player Development Program. They are looking for like-minded people who believe in the science that supports such a monumental change.
“It’s going to be a historic cultural shift for all of amateur hockey, measuring success by improvement of skills rather than by the collection of trophies,” says Smith.
“In the end we believe more players will enjoy the game, stay in the game longer and individual skill levels will improve. A win- win for all.”
For the NHL and USA Hockey, hopefully the end result will be an increase in both the quantity and quality of American players at all levels.
That’s what this new American Development Model is all about.