Tucked away in the back of the noisy Foxboro (Mass.) Sports Center is a quiet place where children are falling in love with the game of hockey, the same way their fathers and uncles did at a time when New England was producing Olympians and NHLers by the dozens.
Young hockey players are finding enjoyment while honing their shooting, skating and stick-handling skills on platforms that make them feel like they’re in an amusement park.
“It’s the Disney World of hockey,” said David A. Jensen, the co-founder of the DAJ Skillz Center.
The center is based on the principles that are the cornerstone of the American Development Model, and is designed with the flexibility to work with teams, family schedules and budgets, and individual players’ needs.
Not to be confused with fellow 1984 Olympian David H. Jensen, the publisher of USA Hockey Magazine, David A. is a Boston-area native who was a member of the famed “Diaper Line” with Hall of Famers Pat Lafontaine and Eddie Olczyk.
A first-round NHL draft choice in 1984, Jensen played hockey at the highest levels and, like his partner in the Skillz Center Larry Martin, is an experienced sports parent who remembers what it looks like when a kid is having fun and getting better at what he or she loves doing.
“Having grown up in what I think was the ADM era before it was even created, what we were doing on and off the ice was similar to what [USA Hockey] is advocating,” Jensen recalls.
“We were doing a lot of cross-ice hockey when we were really young. The coaches were playing goalie and everyone was having a lot of fun, but we were also working on our skills, skating, stick-handling and shooting.
“That doesn’t exist today. Even if a [coach] has credentials, he’s overmatched by too many kids and not enough time.”
Thanks to the hi-tech gadgetry of SuperGlide synthetic ice under Rapid Shot and Rapid Hands exercises, the DAJ Skillz Center is part arcade, part classroom, part playground (with a miniature rink complete with Swedish Floorball sticks) and part testing ground.
“We start kids on sneakers and it progresses to skates. It’s all reality training,” said Jensen, who spends 30-40 hours weekly on skills training with the South Shore Kings and the three other local hockey programs that call Foxboro home.
A youngster can get lost in the enjoyment and learn valuable lessons during one-on-one training sessions from elite professional athletes like Jensen or former NHL defenseman Glen Featherstone.
“It’s so fun when a kid comes in –– you let him shoot and you just show him one thing and right away there’s improvement. To me, that’s worth it,” said Featherstone, who addresses mechanics with young shooters and talks to them about their goals.
Like Jensen and Martin, Featherstone shares a concern that children spend too much time playing games and not enough time working on their skills. Rarely able to touch the puck, frustrated players without an alternative platform for improvement get discouraged and contribute to the state’s alarming rate of resignations.
“I’ve seen my son play since he was 5 years old, and I know the things that are missing,” said Martin, a former bond trader who moved from his native Brooklyn, N.Y., to New Hampshire, where he coached his son Tyler’s team.
A USA Hockey certified coach, he’s now based in Hanover, Mass., and, together with Jensen, has an eye on expanding the DAJ Skillz Center to other Boston-area rinks.
“I actually had the whole business plan written up, I had the funding,” said Martin, who only needed a lead instructor to get the plan off the ground.
“One of the things we’ve seen is a lot of guys out there who don’t necessarily have the credentials to be teaching the sport. Some of them could be very well qualified but are in it for the wrong reasons. So David and I had a call and it was almost like I was talking to myself. The ideas that were going back and forth were the same exact thing.”
“Having Grown up in what I think was The ADM era before it was even created, what we were doing on and off the ice was similar to what [usa hockey] is advocating."
A positive, fun atmosphere where inviting friends and interaction with the experts is encouraged, the DAJ Skillz Center had 40 members within two months. Some hockey programs were soon sending entire teams, from Mites to Bantams, for weekly instruction that features station-based training on shooting, stick-handling and skating [stride extension].
“It’s all age-appropriate; we’re going to train according to the ADM model,” Jensen said.
Aaron Macedo, 15, of Taunton, Mass., has been on skates from age 3 but had never seen the improvement he has already experienced in two months of skills training.
“The coaches from the league, they don’t have time to focus on just one kid,” said his mother, Karen Nadeau.
“[There’s] more one-on-one here, compared to when he’s in the group on the ice ... He loves it, absolutely loves it. He’s always asking when we’re coming here.”
Macedo now visits the center three to four times per week, usually for 60 to 90 minutes at a time.
“It’s made my shot a lot better, just a lot stronger,” he said. “The whole mechanics things, my hand, bending my knees more.”
In the Rapid Shot room, a machine feeds pucks to a shooter, who aims at targets on a regulation-size net 20 feet away. A scoreboard displays and stores scores for power and accuracy so the shooter can measure his progress.
It’s an affordable camp for the average kid, including 7-year-old Walpole, Mass., native Thomas Dunn, whom Jensen dubbed “Top Shelf Tommy” after the swift skater broke a scoring drought with a hat trick.
“He wasn’t keeping his head up, which is very important, so he was missing some good scoring opportunities last season,” said his mother, Cheryl Dunn.
“Working with these guys, NHL guys, who give him a lot of attention, has really helped his confidence. He’s been scoring a lot lately.”
Mick Colageo is a staff writer at The Standard-Times in New Bedford, Mass., and has covered the Boston Bruins since 1991.
Photos By Paul Treseler
Experience Is The Best Teacher
NHL Alumni Pitch In At Summer Skills Camps For Kids
When NHL Alumni camps began to heat up all over North America, youth hockey players received more than just the instruction that will help them on the ice. They also received wisdom that will serve them later on in life.
“With the social media and Facebook, it’s hard to keep them humble,” said former NHLer Bobby Carpenter, who jumped in to work an Alumni camp in Marlborough, Mass. Other camps took place in the Boston suburbs of Quincy, Dedham and Foxboro.
The “Can’t Miss Kid” out of St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Mass., who scored 53 goals in 1984-85, grew up in Peabody, on Boston’s North Shore about 18 miles from Boston Garden. In addition to having a backyard rink, Carpenter played baseball and a little bit of football.
“What we did growing up is we played the sport for the season – football in the park, hockey on the pond. Not only did we play a little bit of organized [sports], everybody played a little of everything,” said Carpenter, whose daughter Alex was named to the U.S. Women’s National Team.
“Back then, your passion was enough. If I thought it was work, I probably wouldn’t have done it. There is that quiet way of growing into a sport.”
Carpenter is one of several NHL Alumni who jumped in to assist regional point man David A. Jensen at this summer’s camps, along with Andy Brickley, Ted Donato, Glen Featherstone, Brian Leetch, Shawn McEachern, Scott Young and Tony Amonte. U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Keith Tkachuk served as an instructor in the St. Louis, Mo. area.
“There’s the on-ice [knowledge] that these guys can pass along,” said Jason Zent, a former NHL player and representative for the NHL Alumni Association.
“There are also the off-ice and the life lessons, how playing the game made us better people and has helped us in our lives.”
As well-known as many of these players are, Jensen’s 1984 Olympic coach Lou Vairo is excited to see that one of his favorite players is running the show.
“One of my great regrets is that, because of his injuries, people never found out what a great player David Jensen was. I put him right up there beside Pat Lafontaine,” Vairo said. “David has the passion and the intelligence to do this. He is the perfect person for the job.”
These camps are part of a new outreach program created by the NHL Alumni Association to connect former NHL players with the stars of tomorrow. They also fall right in line with the concepts behind the American Development Model, which places a greater emphasis on fun and skill development and less on competition and the pressures of winning at a young age.
Jensen estimates that when he was growing up in Needham, Mass., in the late 1970s, he’d play 20 youth hockey games a year and practice 80 times. Now he says the trends have reversed, and as a result, skills are lagging behind.
“I was researching that because I felt that this is what the kids need, to develop those skills,” said Jensen, who runs the DAJ Skills Center out of Foxboro (Mass.) Sports Center.
“Right down to the offseason, it has to be fun. It can’t be a chore-like atmosphere for the kids or you’re going to get burnout.”