Change is on its way to the Newburyport Youth Hockey League and Massachusetts Youth Hockey with USA Hockey trying to implement the American Development Model (ADM) nationwide.
Although not mandating the ADM, USA Hockey has made a concerted effort to travel nationwide starting in Minnesota 10 years ago to recommend youth hockey organizations, such as Newburyport, adapt its structured age-appropriate curriculum to help more kids play, love and excel in hockey.
The ADM was put together in response to the country's struggles and poor results in the Olympics up until this past February when the U.S. earned the silver medal — a standard USA Hockey was unwilling to accept especially considering other countries' limited resources — and also to address the rising number of players that were leaving youth hockey across the country in which an estimated 60 percent of players were leaving the sport before Pee Wees (Under 14 age level).
As far as Newburyport is concerned, the change is slowly beginning only at the Mite level (players 8 and under) and what the change entails is practicing and playing games across the sheet of ice — 60-70 feet versus the full 200 feet — on a half or even a third of the surface very similarly to what many countries in Europe had integrated into their programs.
The specific belief is that those Mite players will have the opportunity to touch the puck far more on a smaller surface, be able to develop more skill, learn to make quicker decisions, and also have more time on the rink with two or three teams practicing at the same time.
NYHL has not implemented the change in games still adhering to the Valley League rules, but it has begun to implement the change in practices.
"One stat that was interesting to look at when Roger Grillo made his presentation to Newburyport Youth Hockey and some of the other surrounding towns was that Massachusetts is actually the sixth largest country in the world with the number of players it produces or has in its system," Newburyport Youth Hockey League president Shawn Richmond said. "One stat Roger mentioned was that even with the U.S. being the largest country in terms of developing players, we had one Olympian that represented Massachusetts last year. Another major stat was that Massachusetts Youth Hockey is losing 4,000 Mite level players every year.
"In regular level Mites and Squirts on the current ice surface, a kid may touch the puck for 15 seconds for an entire game," Richmond continued. "Taking it from soccer, you don't get youth players playing on full length soccer fields right from the start, and by making the field or rink smaller you have more opportunity to touch the puck. They want to shrink the rink taking it from soccer and making it more interactive in a smaller area where kids are working on skill, making it a fun atmosphere, and they primarily think the kids will stay more interested and not leave the game of hockey."
Mike Kelley, who has run the Newburyport instructional Mite league for the last 17 years, loves the idea of the change and is very much in tune with what USA Hockey has been suggesting.
"My kids are going there and they should. I believe in the model, the issue is that we're going to change the way we've done (the instructional league) forever, and the issue is what is the right way to do it, which is what I keep asking the Massachusetts Hockey people," Kelley said.
Where Kelley has seen one of the biggest problems cropping up is the fact that parents have ruined the love of the game component making youth sports too complicated, which in a hockey setting 40 years ago would have been kids simply learning to play the game on a small pond skating for hours at a time.
"Forty years ago kids learned on a pond; why are 6- and 7-year-old kids using a giant sheet of ice?" Kelley said. "Let's make the area a little smaller and let's take a lot of the structure away from it. From my perspective, I love it because you talk to people about youth sports and parents ruin everything for kids. Why can't we just go on the pond and play hockey? I have a small league in town with eight teams and the first-year kids play instructional hockey — for the first two months, we don't call anything. It's progressive learning with coaches on the ice to the point that by the end of the year we have a real game in February.
"Massachusetts hockey has fallen behind as far as developing top level players, and this is an attempt to get kids to learn the game at a micro level so they can develop skills to compete on a national level," Kelley said. "Look at the Beanpot. In the past the rosters of the teams in the tournament were filled with Massachusetts players. Now the teams have players from all over the world. I think it's because the kids aren't developing skills at a young age."
The problem that Richmond sees with implementing the change is that where other towns and organizations have struggled losing numbers, Newburyport has seen just the opposite effect. And to look at the high school team is to know that the program in place for well over 50 years has worked as evidence of the Clippers back-to-back state title game teams the past two years.
"Our program has had just the opposite results from other programs statewide because Newburyport has actually grown in numbers," Richmond said. "We've had success and grown over the last few years. A few years ago we were hovering around 170-180 kids and now we're closer to 230, so we've definitely grown and that's probably attributable to the success of the high school team. Newburyport is a place that people want to come to play hockey."
Although skeptical about the change at first, having listened to the presentation and given Grillo his fair shake, Richmond said the change — however difficult it may be — makes sense on several levels especially in terms of getting more ice time for teams, a problem considering how booked the Graf Rink and the Governor's Academy's Whiston Bragdon Arena are trying to fulfill the needs of the school districts of Triton, Amesbury and Newburyport.
"There's a million stats out there, but the Northeast Regional president did a fantastic job during his presentation," explained Richmond, who said every state in USA Hockey is on board with the ADM with the exception of New Hampshire. "He had a lot of commercials of a young kid shooting a basketball from the free throw line at a 10-foot hoop and the ball landing 10 feet short, of a Little League-aged kid on a full size field throwing the ball from the outfield, and several other comparisons and then he ended it with the question — why hockey?
"I was skeptical at first because there's going to be a lot of growing pains and a lot of changes, but from what I've seen any time we can get the kids on the ice more I think it can't be anything but positive," Richmond said. "The most important aspect is the ratio of practice time to game needs, that needs to be increased, and I think that will help the kids in the long run."