After playing in 934 NHL games over the span of 14 seasons, Ken Klee hung up his competitive skates. But to say he retired from hockey would be a bit of a misnomer.
“People ask me if I miss hockey since I’ve retired. I tell them that I’ve never had as much hockey. I’m at the rink just about every night,” Klee said.
Of the time the former NHL defenseman spends at the rink, no time has had more impact on kids who play in the Foothills Flyers Youth Hockey Association in suburban Denver than Tuesday nights when Klee is joined on the ice by fellow NHL alumnus for what they call ADM night.
Modeled after the prescribed skill-development practice plans put forth by the American Development Model, Klee and Leschyshyn have put their own spin on building up the basic skills of close to 100 Squirt and Peewee aged players once a week.
“Skate, pass, shoot. It’s what hockey is all about,” Klee said. “This is all about bringing fun back to the game by getting away from the ultra-competitive side of the sport. This is making kids better. It’s not just playing and winning games.”
That may sound good in theory, but for parents footing the bill to watch their kids play competitive games, such a revolutionary method of training is a swift departure from the way things have been done in the past.
And that’s where Klee’s pedigree comes into play. The Indianapolis native played three seasons at Bowling Green State University before finally making the jump to the NHL with the Washington Capitals. Along the way, he also suited up for the U.S. National Junior Team as well as the U.S. squad that played in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
And teaming up with Leschyshyn, who has 1,033 NHL games and a Stanley Cup championship under his belt, has created a formidable force that even the staunchest skeptic can’t dismiss.
“I think to a degree that our involvement helps these parents buy into what we’re doing,” said Leschyshyn, who put down roots in Colorado even though he finished his career with the Ottawa Senators in 2004. “They know that we’ve both played in the NHL and they want to know how we got there.”
The first step is to build a foundation of strong skills. To do that, each ADM practice plan is designed to work on various fundamental skills. Each practice the kids are divided into smaller groups and rotate through six stations on the ice. Some may start with small area games while others work on shooting or passing, and others get schooled in the finer points of a 2-on-1. And there is always a healthy dose of skating tossed into the mix.
“When I got here and looked at the kids I thought that our kids don’t skate very well,” Klee said. “So whether it’s our top kid or our bottom kid they all need to improve their skating. Because if you can skate, you can play.”
The ADM sessions also consist of off-ice components. While the Peewees are on the ice, a different group of coaches push the Squirt players with a series of drills that work on basic athletic skills that many kids don’t seem to develop on the playground or in gym class.
“It’s amazing that we had to teach kids to play leap frog. Some kids couldn’t even do a single pull up,” said John Seymour, hockey director for the Foothills Hockey Association, and runs a similar ADM practice on Monday nights for Mite players.
Kids like the practices because they are constantly moving from station to station and working on various skills under the direction of a variety of coaches. They also like being on the ice with kids who may be friends or classmates but not necessarily teammates.
“This is definitely one of my favorite practices of the week because you get to see different coaches who get to work on different stations,” said Garrett Klee, a Peewee AA player. “It’s nice to see kids that I go to school with but don’t always see at the rink.”
The vast majority of parents seem to like the practices, and have noticed an improvement in their sons and daughters since the practices took off in September.
“I think it’s helped him as far as developing his skills,” Shannon Armstrong said about her Squirt-aged son, Dawson. “I’ve noticed a difference, and he likes it.”
And skating against kids who are playing in higher levels provides an incentive to other kids to show that they can play the game.
“It’s great for him because he pushes himself a lot harder,” Armstrong said. “I was watching him skate and he was trying to keep up with the A players and watching what they do. So it definitely pushes him, and that’s perfect.”
Seymour said that other coaches have been found watching from the stands in hopes of picking up a few new drills to run in their practices.
So far the proof of the practice has been in the performance for one of the smaller associations in the state. In the past, the top kids in the Foothills Association have always been able to compete against the best in the state, but the drop-off beyond that has been pretty steep. It’s a trend that Klee sees reversing.
“I’ve seen a ton of improvement this year, especially with the lower level kids, who have improved dramatically in their individual skill,” Klee said.
There is already talk about how to expand the program next year to include House league players as well as Bantams and Midgets. But with only so many hours in a day and days in a week, Klee would like to see other coaches jump onboard so he and Leschyshyn can have one night away from the rink. But no matter how it goes, they believe in the ADM and they believe that it is making better hockey players in the foothills of Denver, and elsewhere.
“Skills are for everyone. Whether you’re an NHLer or a little kid, you still need to work on your skills,” Klee said. “We were both taught that over the course of our careers and now we’re trying to pass that along to the kids.”