Kevin McLaughlin has been making the semi-annual summer trip to Finland for so long, he can’t even remember when he first started.
The when, however, isn’t nearly as important as the why, as McLaughlin’s trips to the Scandinavian nation have been part of a global initiative to help grow the game at a grass-roots level.
This year marked the 12th annual global International Ice Hockey Federation Hockey Development Camp, which is held in Vierumaki, a small village located two hours south of the capital Helsinki.
“I don’t even know, honestly, it’s probably been since 2001 or 2002,” McLaughlin said when asked how long he’s been attending the camps.
Unlike other international events, the focus of this camp is not competition, but cooperation. While games are a key element of the curriculum, the focus of bringing nations together has more to do with collectively sharing ideas to help each federation to grow and fine-tune their respective programs.
This year, 480 people from 53 IIHF countries, including 141 15-year-old players attended the camp. Those players were then divided into eight teams to compete in a series of games. As much as the players get from competing on the ice, it’s the interaction with teammates from other countries that sets this camp apart from the countless others they may have attended in the past.
Joining McLaughlin on this international journey were two of USA Hockey’s newest hires, Matt Herr and Ty Hennes, along with long-time ADM Regional Manager Scott Paluch. Paluch worked the camp as a mentor-coach with a 15-year-old team. Herr and Hennes were students in the Learn to Play instructors program, and had the opportunity to work with Finnish youngsters ages 5 to 10 as part of the Learn To Play sessions, receiving training and feedback from classmates and course instructors.
Also joining the traveling party were 15-year-old players Logan Brown (Missouri), Ryan Lindgren (Minnesota) and Patrick Khodorenko (California).
The players were selected in part due to their skills on the ice, but their leadership qualities off the ice are what set them apart from their peers. The staff evaluated the players at the most recent USA Hockey National Championships, and wanted to see how they would react to international travel and being on a team where some of their teammates did not speak English.
Most importantly, Hennes said, they wanted to see if the three players could be ambassadors for American hockey.
“It was an unbelievable experience, getting to play with some of the best players the world has to offer,” Brown said. “It was great meeting guys from other countries, I made a lot of new friends.”
Upon touching back down on U.S. soil, all three players boarded a flight to attend the USA Hockey Select 15 Player Development Camp in Amherst, N.Y.
While the camp provides an outstanding cultural and hockey experience for the youth players, Hennes said the primary purpose is to help smaller countries develop their respective hockey programs, and evaluate the other coaches in attendance.
“Each team had three coaches from all over the world,” Hennes said. “They also had a mentor-coach who is there to teach them, evaluate them, introduce them to new theories and practices, such as new methods of player development.”
By the end of the week the goal is to have the coaches create their own practice plans that are based on age-specific concepts, and then to run an on-ice practice based on their practice plans.
“These practices are where player development occurs,” Hennes said. “It doesn’t come from a game, not in a week-long tournament, but putting together proper practice plans, focusing on keeping kids moving.”
Student coaches in the Learn to Play course used an activity tracker to monitor the movements of player during a practice and record how much he is moving, skating with and without the puck, how many passes he gave and received, how many shots he took and how many times the coaches interact with him.
“These are more the true measures of a quality run practice,” Hennes said. “Kids only learn by doing, so we need to create practices that encourage constant movement and less standing in line. It once again goes into growing the game and keeping kids interested, involved.”
Hennes compared the changing mentality of practices to going to Disneyland: “What’s the best part, standing in line or riding the rides?”
With USA Hockey being asked by the IIHF to assume the role as a leading pioneer in player development, due in large part to a number of innovative programs created over the past several years, the roles of USA Hockey staff members, such as McLaughlin, were more so as facilitators to help coaches from the smaller nations while passing on the principles of the American Development Model.
“[We taught] recruitment, age appropriate programing — which is usually station-based practices — cross-ice games, using the blue puck, and then how to organize and run a jamboree,” McLaughlin said.
However, it’s not just about powerhouse federations bouncing ideas off each other; it’s also about helping smaller hockey-playing countries such as Turkey and China to grow their programs so they can maybe one day be mentioned in the same light as the elite hockey federations.
“I think everyone realizes hockey is hockey,” McLaughlin said. “It doesn’t matter what country you’re in, if you get little kids to come to the rink, you run it properly, make it fun and have increased activity, and make it age appropriate, you’ll see that kids can play hockey anywhere in the world, not just in those big countries.”
One of the hidden benefits of the camp is allowing kids and coaches alike to be exposed to different cultures and languages. Kids will often be paired with coaches and teammates who don’t speak the same language as them. That can make communication a bit of a challenge, and sometimes even comical.
“The art of coaching is demonstrations, words are just fillers,” Hennes said. “A lot of it comes down to visual demonstrations. You get pretty animated pointing around. It becomes like charades on ice.”