Located on the west side of the state, about 150 miles northwest of metropolitan Detroit, Michigan’s District 6 has become a hothouse for the American Development Model, USA Hockey's player development program from Mites to Midgets.
In early 2010, when the district’s leadership debated the merits of adopting the ADM, the discussion always came back to what was best for its players. For the directors of District 6’s Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey Association, that meant implementing the ADM as soon as possible.
“They really pushed for it,” said Wendy Mielock, a parent of four GRAHA players. “They said, ‘this is going to be the best thing for our kids and for our organization, so let’s do it.’”
When the district voted to adopt the ADM, GRAHA reps went to work. They attended ADM seminars and went back to their coaches and educated them on why the association was making the transition. And with the help of Bob Mancini, one of USA Hockey’s ADM regional managers, the association invited parents to watch cross-ice action and station-based practices in person.
“In the beginning Bob was here all the time and parents were able to ask him questions and see for themselves how much fun the kids were having and how they were getting better faster,” said Jean Laxton, GRAHA general manager. “It helped that all of District 6 adopted the ADM for mites. But we worked really hard and we did a good job selling it.”
Now in their fourth season of embracing ADM principles and following ADM practice plans, the effects can be seen throughout GRAHA’s mites and squirts. Enrollment and retention numbers are up and coaches and parents are excited about the skill development and fun happening on the ice.
“The ADM is the best thing that has ever happened to youth hockey,” said Lyn Sova, a GRAHA squirt coach with two sons playing in the association. “It’s just fun to coach this way and I can’t tell you how much the ADM has meant for the skill development of my two boys and the kids on my team.”
GRAHA’s house programming includes a six-team mite league with twice-a-week station-based practices and either in-house Saturday game days or multi-team jamborees and ‘exchanges’ with other West Michigan associations.
Coaches have access to an ADM "tool bag" that includes ringettes and tennis balls. They can also implement cones, hoses and Border Patrol rink divider boards during practices.
“And on our game days, we have three mite games going on at once and each team plays five, 12-minute games in an 80-minute session,” said Doug Wemple, GRAHA’s mite director. “So they get a lot of skating and puck touches and they come off the ice tired, sweaty and with a smile on their face.”
But the ADM’s biggest impact has been on the association’s four squirt teams that compete in the West Division of the statewide Adray Community Hockey League.
“The feedback from parents is that our first-year squirts are the best they have ever been,” said Wemple. “And those are the kids that have been through the ADM for two years, and some of them have had three years of ADM.”
Mielock, a veteran hockey mom, couldn’t agree more. Her soon-to-be 9-year old son, Sammy, is one of the players about which Wemple is talking. Her two older sons Johnny, 11, and Carl, 13, missed out on the ADM and Mielock can see a big difference in their skill levels.
“It’s night and day. Sammy is doing things on the ice that my older kids couldn’t do at that age and it’s because of the ADM,” said Mielock. “The practices are like a circus for the kids. As soon as they get done with one thing, they move onto to another thing that is new, exciting and challenging. It’s so much fun for them.
“And now there isn’t just one kid who is the superstar that goes up and down the ice with everyone else chasing him. Now there are multiple kids with really good skills, multiple kids handling the puck and multiple kids scoring goals. I love the ADM and what it has done for my player and for all of the players.”
Wemple credits the ADM’s focus on more puck touches, increased repetitions and playing in the smaller cross-ice environment for the disparity in the skating, passing and stickhandling skills of the two age groups.
“My youngest son has played three years of cross-ice and he is ten times more skilled as a puckhandler than his older brother who had one season of ADM,” said Wemple. “All of it is directly related to the small area games. He is not intimidated to be in traffic with the puck with three or four players around him. You see a lot of these kids developing like that.
“Our kids look for each other to pass the puck. It’s amazing to me how well they figure out how to play and how to use their teammates in the small area games. And they learned that on their own, we didn’t tell them. That’s the best part.”
GRAHA coaches have seen how cross-ice action and small area games mimic the way the game is played at older levels, where space and time are at a premium, players have to move the puck and get open and end-to-end rushes are rare.
“It’s easier to teach a kid to play in open ice than it is to teach him to play in traffic,” said Sova, who is in his fourth season using the ADM. “And cross-ice is great for that because the best skaters have to go wide, they can’t just go in a straight line and it forces them to look for their teammates and be creative. Even the kids that are not as good of skaters can still challenge them, which forces everyone to get better.”
For years Jeff Blashill, the coach of the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, has used small-area games in practice with his college teams and he continues to use them at the pro level.
“That’s what our guys want to do,” he said. “Because they are fun, they are competitive and yet they are teaching (good) habits and developing skill. If you can do that in a fun atmosphere in a small-area game, you’ll get more out of your players than from a boring drill. So what USA Hockey has done at the youth level is being done at higher levels.”
When the district first made the move to ADM there were parents and coaches in the association that were not 100 percent on board with the decision, but that changed when they saw what was happening with their players.
“A few years ago I think parents just wanted to see their kids play a full-ice game,” said Mielock. “I heard ‘Oh, we’re finally getting to play full-ice hockey.’ But thinking back, it was more about me and what I wanted to see, than about my son. At that age they just want to have fun. They don’t care if it’s full-ice game or a cross-ice game.
“Now, I don’t hear that. People see the benefits of the ADM and know that this is the progression.”
Also in the beginning some of the district’s coaches that grew up practicing and learning how to play the game pre-ADM grumbled about the new direction.
“I heard a few guys complain that ‘this won’t last’ or ‘it will never work.’ But now they’ve seen how we’ve been developing players and they’ve come around,” said Wemple, who e-mails weekly practice plans to his mite coaches and designates an on-ice leader for each practice session. “Our coaches have really stepped up and gotten involved. Everyone is going in this direction because everyone is seeing the results.”
Blashill, whose 7-year-old son, Teddy, is in GRAHA’s mite program, believes the collective rise in ability among the young players with ADM experience is a clear indication that USA Hockey’s skill development program is on the right track.
“I see the kids having fun, touching the puck a lot and the whole group getting better,” he said. “So not only are the top kids getting better, but the kids that started maybe a little slow, they’re improving too. And that is going to give us a great depth of players that enjoy hockey as they move up.”
After helping lead her association’s move to the ADM nearly four years ago, Laxton has no doubt they made the right decision.
“With the ADM, the proof really is in the pudding,” she said. “Players are having more fun and they are better. There are so many more resources for coaches. You can’t dispute the facts. We are better equipping our young players now.”