As Tom Lampl looked onto the ice at Colorado College he didn’t just see budding young hockey players participating in a USA Hockey development camp. What he really saw was opportunity.
There were other noticeable differences as well, such as 14-year-old boys who were already shaving and others who had never used a razor before. There were players towering over 6-feet tall competing against others who only barely crossed the 5-foot threshold.
As parents know all too well, kids develop at different rates. Some are late bloomers with delayed growth spurts. Others shoot up early and then struggle to grow into their bodies. And still others simply choose to stop playing hockey or do not develop any further.
Like the other coaches at the Western Regional Multi-District High Performance Boys Select 14 Camp, Lampl, the Rocky Mountain District associate coach in chief, had no idea who among the 180 campers would become the next big star at an age where puberty hasn't yet run its course.
It is an issue USA Hockey has been grappling with for as long as it has held its annual player development camps. Over the years the organization’s player development committee has noticed a dramatic turnover by the time an age group matriculated through the program.
“The evidence was that 75 percent of the kids that participated in the 14 Camp weren’t showing up at the 17 Camp,” said Kevin McLaughlin, USA Hockey’s senior director of Hockey Development. “They weren’t the same kids.”
Lampl was not surprised by the data compiled by USA Hockey. He’s been tracking the Rocky Mountain District kids for 13 years, and this year only 50 percent of those the District sent to last year’s 14 national camp returned for the 15 camp.
“I think that just tells you we were narrowing the pyramid too soon and that we needed to broaden the base,” Lampl said. “This camp is a step in the right direction.”
One of many examples of that is recent Los Angeles King’s Stanley Cup champion Trevor Lewis. The Salt Lake City native who scored two goals during the Stanley Cup Finals never made it to a National Select Camp until he was 17.
That’s why many in the player development community felt it was better to be inclusive than exclusive. So they dropped the five-day national camp that catered to 180 14-year-olds and replaced it with a series of regional development camps that can impact “roughly 1,200 kids.”
“We wanted to expose more kids to the development that happens at the 14 national camp,” McLaughlin said. “That way we can throw a broader blanket over more kids at a younger age so that the ones that do actually end up at the 17 camp have had three years of coaching and exposure to age-appropriate development.”
Yale Associate Head Coach Red Gendron, one of many high-level coaches at this year’s Southeast District camp, said the lessons the kids learn at camp about teamwork and discipline will be qualities they take with them for the rest of their lives.
“To have these kind of camps at every District of USA Hockey is extremely beneficial to the players,” Gendron said. “It gives more kids an opportunity to be a part of the whole pyramid of USA Hockey’s player development.”
Joe Doyle, a regional manager of the American Development Model, said the main component of the newly-designed Select 14 camps is that Districts can duplicate the curriculum of the national camps at a local level, which saves time, money and impacts more players.
“These camps have more to do with training and development than it has to do with evaluating players,” Doyle said.
“We are hoping to plant the seeds of knowledge and those who are truly hungry and want to get after it can do that on their own. That way, by the time they’re 16, 17, or 18, it will have a real impact on their game.”
Each regional select camp featured on-ice and off-ice training sessions, as well as seminars dealing with important topics ranging from nutrition and strength/conditioning to opportunities in hockey. All seminars were open to parents.
Griffin Clark, who attended the Southeast District Select 14 camp in Nashville, said the off-ice seminars were his favorite part of the camp.
“The seminars have been a highlight [of the week],” the Charlotte, N.C. native said. “They taught me a lot of things, not just about hockey but about life. They taught me how to be an organized individual, how to never give up [and] perseverance.”
Hugo Cordova has two 20-year-old twin boys that never got invited to a national camp. So to have his youngest son qualify for the new version of the Southeast District camp was a humbling and rewarding experience.
“The intensity on the ice and the bonding these kids experience is great,” Cordova said. “Every child needs to experience this camp because if they really want to play in the future these camps [will] really help them out.”
Josh Morrison, who played “A” hockey last season for San Diego Ice Arena, enjoyed his time at the Western Regional Multi-District High Performance Boys Select 14 Camp, which included players from the Rocky Mountain, Northern Plains and Pacific Districts. It was not only an opportunity for players to see what they need to work on to continue their development but also to make new friendships with other young skaters from other states.
“It was nice coming out of California and seeing new coaches,” Morrison said. “They teach you different things and I learned new things. It was a good experience.”
Morrison’s father, William, also appreciated the opportunity for his son and other players from non-traditional areas to learn from some of the top coaches in the country.
“Just making it through the process we were on cloud nine. It has opened so many doors that we didn’t even know were there,” Morrison said.
“You’re talking about a kid who isn’t mainstream. We’re from San Diego. If it was the old [way] Josh probably would not have made the cut.”
The way that USA Hockey sees it, the change is really addition by subtraction as the new format provides even greater opportunities for a larger base of players who have not even scratched the surface of their full potential.
“By USA Hockey eliminating the 14 camp they didn’t eliminate the 14 camp,” Lampl said. “They created opportunities for 800 more additional kids.”