Buzz In The 'Burgh

Mt. Lebanon Youth Hockey Embraces The Chaos To Get More Kids In The Game

This fall, some people worried that the Mt. Lebanon Ice Center was going to be overrun with little Hornets. But so far, the buzz has been mostly positive for the Mt. Lebanon (Pa.) Hockey Association and hockey in general.

Here in this suburb about five miles south of the hockey hotspot of Pittsburgh, the MLHA Hornets’ American Development Model program has been a solid success since it started in 2011 with four teams. It grew to five teams for the next two seasons and for 2014-15 fielded six teams, all of which practiced together on the center’s full-size sheet on Monday nights.

But so many people were signing up for this season that the group closed registration—only for those 8 & Under players—noting that there wouldn’t be enough ice time to give more than 80 kids a positive learning environment.

“The MLHA Board believes that having the opportunity to play the game at this age is what is most important, and we want families to have time to pursue other options as opposed to ‘cutting’ kids at our tryout in April,” says ADM coordinator Dave Klasnick.

“We don’t want to cut 6-year-olds.”

In reality, he didn’t want to say no to anyone, as evidenced by the 116 pinneys handed out for tryouts. After those players were evaluated during a marathon three hourlong sessions, even some coaches were surprised when Klasnick announced that every kid was placed on a team.

On 10 teams, that is, nearly double the number from the previous season.

Where were all these kids coming from? Where would they all skate?

With the Mites’ 99 percent retention rate, Klasnick knew a majority of kids would be returning, but he was surprised how many brothers and sisters wanted to play too. There also were a lot of kids coming in from the Sidney Crosby Little Penguins Learn to Play program and other developmental programs at the rink, and some coming from other associations, including a neighboring one that raised its costs.

He met with the rink’s assistant manager Dave Hornack, and was able to secure, on a year-trial basis, an extra 50 minutes of weekly ice time, just before the Mites usual 6:10 to 7 p.m. slot, that had been used by relatively few figure skaters. This could work, with five teams practicing at 5:10 and the other five immediately after that.

That’s where the concerns started. Would families and coaches be able to get to the rink in time for the early practice? And would those coming later have any place to park? Rink staff worried that there would be too many Mites getting dressed and undressed in the lobby to accommodate the high school games that start right afterwards.

Klasnick encouraged everyone to give chaos a chance, and it seems to be working, even if the back-to-back group practices have players literally back-to-back too.

The expansion did make the job of ice scheduler Chad Wertz more of a challenge, but he was able to secure enough extra time for individual team practices on the ice center’s studio rink. He also scheduled more jamborees at other rinks. Still, as he puts it, “What do we do in a couple of years?”—that is, when all these cross-ice kids want to play full ice? Did cutting just get delayed?

Coach Scot Lehman, who draws up plans for the group practices, has been encouraging coaches to tweak those drills to their players’ levels, as he wants to make sure they all develop as they should. But he likes what he sees so far. He looks downstream and sees not just more hockey players, but also more USA Hockey-certified coaches and families.

“That’s more knowledge and better-educated families,” says Pittsburgh Amateur Hockey League executive director Darcee Purvis, who calls the Hornets’ expansion “significant’ when most other member organizations are mostly stable.

Klasnick can think of one drawback: “There’s so many [Mites] now. The first year, I knew every kid’s name. I knew what they were good at.”

But he looks ahead and sees these kids doing good things, even if it means the organization making adjustments such as holding more practices at other rinks.

“Organizationally, the more kids you have, the better chances of having competitive teams at all levels,” says Klasnick, who is also the Grow the Sport Director for the PAHL. “I think more kids playing is just fun.”

Stephen Drizos agrees. A former Hornet himself, he thought he’d missed the deadline to sign up his 6-year-old son, Mason. They got word that they’d made a team at Mason’s birthday party, and dad says, “We were pretty ecstatic”—so much so that Mason sent Klasnick a thank-you video.

Drizos, who’s helping out as an assistant coach, is amazed at how far the kids have come in the first month of the season, and Mason agrees that it’s going “goodish” and he’s having a lot of fun. In fact, now his 4-year-old brother, Bryce, wants to be a Hornet, too, when he’s old enough to play.

Mason, however, thinks there may be one too many players on the ice. At his second jamboree that was a warm-up act for the Hornets new Game of the Week promotion, “I didn’t get any goals,” he says. “And it’s the goalie’s fault!”

Bob Batz Jr. is a features editor and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and coach of a Mt. Lebanon Hornets Mites team.


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