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USA Hockey’s American Development Model Gains Traction in Other Sports


Ben Frank, a Canadian based in California, had a hockey epiphany in Pittsburgh.

Originally from Toronto, Frank thrived in youth and junior hockey and then played collegiately at the University of Toronto before heading to California to play professional roller hockey.

In 2011, Frank operated the thriving Wildcats Hockey Club out of Riverside, California, and accepted a last-minute invitation to attend a USA Hockey symposium in Pittsburgh.

There were presentations from experts in child-development, hockey, and sports science from all over the world who provided facts and figures that shattered everything he experienced as a youth hockey player and everything he implemented as a youth hockey leader.

“With what I learned, the decision became very clear: I couldn’t continue to do things the old way,” Frank recalls. “If it didn’t work, I was going to get out and do something else because I wasn’t going to knowingly do something that would hurt the future of these kids.”

His program had 275 kids, and they were in the middle of a season, but Frank radically changed everything. No more drills like the ones he did in college. No more full-ice practices for the little kids. And more practices, fewer games, and less travel.

There was a mass exodus.

Months later, only four of the 12 coaches and 125 kids remained.

“It became very polarizing,” Frank says. “It was really tough.”

Ken Martel, a Californian who played collegiately in Michigan, had his “aha” moment in Colorado Springs.

A longtime member of USA Hockey’s coaching and player development teams, Martel was tasked by the late Jim Johannson to research the sport’s declining participation—they were most alarmed by a drop of 40,000 male players over a few years—and reevaluate the development plan.

Martel connected with hockey insiders who deeply cared about the sport, as well as leaders from other sports and sporting federations. But a presentation from Hungarian-born, then Canadian citizen and author of Long-Term Athlete Development, Istvan Balyi floored him.

“He presented on long-term athlete development, and I said, ‘Wow, this sounds like our problems!’ ”

Martel, of course, reached out to Balyi, who has worked with numerous international sports bodies and teams.

The first key: Place kids first.

Martel reflected on his own childhood, playing at the Norwalk Ice Arena in California all the time with friends.

“If there were any problems, when I stepped on the ice, everything else kind of melted away,” Martel says, “and there would be a big smile on my face.”

But the game literally changed.

Ice time started to cost money, and adults started to care more about wins, titles, and fees, and less about fun and personal development.

“It’s like Back to the Future, a little bit. It’s giving the game back to the kids,” Martel says. “When we were growing up, we weren’t as over-coached as everyone is now, at a young age. We’re not treating 8-year-olds like 18-year-olds.”

Martel and others at USA Hockey started to create the framework for the American Development Model (ADM) that emphasized age-appropriate, age-specific competition and training structure to empower all kids and take a long-term approach to development.

The NHL was quick to embrace the initiative, and other governing bodies took notice.

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Bob Mancini, a New Yorker based in Michigan, sensed a problem when his son Victor started to play hockey.

Victor started skating and playing at 3 ½, but he was practicing on full ice.

“I saw it, and figured that there’s gotta be a better way,” Mancini says. “I just didn’t know exactly what that was.”

The closest half-ice option was 17 miles from their home. But, after one year, that program essentially forced Victor to transition to full-ice training. So Mancini started a half-ice program for his son and other young boys at a rink 23 miles from home.

Then he learned about the ADM, and he departed his position as the director of player development for the Edmonton Oilers and accepted a regional manager position with USA Hockey.

“It changed my life, in terms of how to look at the development of youth,” Mancini says.

Mancini and other regional leaders help people like Frank implement changes.

Frank committed to some key principles: Encourage athletes to play other sports, practice three times for each game and prohibit 8-year-olds from “playing up.” Frank also partnered with the Positive Coaching Alliance.

The numbers started to reverse for Frank, and the transformation seemed appropriate when it became the Junior Reign, a partner of the Los Angeles Kings and its AHL affiliate the Ontario (Calif.) Reign.

Before adopting ADM, Frank’s program retained about 55 percent of its players, with many maneuvering to other clubs for an assortment of reasons. But after adopting ADM, retention grew to more than 90 percent, and the steady growth has its player pool above 300 now.

“I figured it was better to be pioneers and be on it early,” Frank says. “The benefits outweighed the challenges.”

All the relevant numbers are trending upward for USA Hockey from a decade ago: 13 percent more players 18 and younger; 33 percent increase in players 8-and-under; 37 percent up for female players; and 15 percent more male players.

Ice hockey and lacrosse lead youth sports with the most trained coaches including effective motivational techniques at 40% each

-State of Play 2018 Report

Martel is humbled by the ADM’s success. But he never saw this: the ADM provides the training framework for many clubs and nearly 20 governing bodies, including the United States Olympic Committee.

“That never crossed my mind,” Martel says. “I’m a little overwhelmed at times, thinking about it. I try not to.”

Instead, Martel focuses on what more he can do to help reverse the decline in youth sports participation by educating more parents and training up more coaches.

“Our ADM staff is unbelievable,” Martel says. “They just understand the importance of what it is we’re trying to do.”

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