After years of coaching at the Tier I level with the Chicago Mission, Kent Allen and Pete Rutili have turned their attention to teaching younger players in the metropolitan Chicago area.
Allen took over as hockey director of the Chicago Jets, the city’s first Tier II organization, in June 2012. Nine months later, in March 2013, Rutili became hockey director of the Chicago Cyclones, located at the Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, Ill., about 40 miles west of the Windy City.
In the 2009-10 season, the pair coached three members of this year’s United States National Junior Team – Thomas DiPauli, Vince Hinostroza and Ryan Hartman – on the Chicago Mission 16U squad and regularly built small-area games into their practice sessions with the Tier I midgets.
“I am a big believer in station-based skill development and the principles of the American Development Model, and with those elite players, we used small-area games to work on our power-play, transition, breakouts and 2-on-1s,” said Rutili. “I share that with our parents all the time now. These are concepts that are also being used at the junior, college and pro levels.”
The fact that the principles of USA Hockey’s skill-development program works with all age groups and skill levels isn’t lost on Allen either.
“The same things that helped those high-end guys get better are what we’re using now with our younger players to help them gets lots of puck touches, repetitions, and build a foundation of skills,” said Allen, whose Jets teams play out of Johnny’s Ice House West, also the practice home of the Chicago Blackhawks.
When Allen first arrived at the Jets, many of the organization’s teams were practicing with 10-12 players on a full sheet of ice.
“The first thing I did was get more coaches and more kids out there on the ice to increase the pace and tempo of the practices,” said Allen.
The Jets organization includes three mite teams and an additional 55 mite-aged players that focus on a strictly ADM cross-ice program. Mite team practice sessions now include all 40 players sharing the ice with a focus on skating, small-area games and competitions.
“Our practices are 100 percent skill based. Basically we’re just trying to help these kids get better,” said Allen.
Monday nights have become a highlight for the Jets. Squirt, peewee and bantam teams do off-ice strength and agility training, along with puckhandling and shooting practice, in an indoor parking garage at the Icehouse and then all of the Jets players, including mites, take part in station-based practices focused entirely on skill development and fun.
“One of the stations is always skating, with and without pucks,” said Allen. “The second is a small-area game with a purpose and we rotate the third one based on what the coaches feel the kids need.”
“Monday’s a good day, that’s a day they are getting a lot better.”
With the Cyclones, Rutili led a transition from mites playing a 10-game full-ice schedule to a skill-development program for 6U and 8U players built around station-based and controlled-play practice sessions and cross-ice jamborees with local organizations that have also implemented ADM. The Cyclones recently hosted a six-team jamboree that included 90-100 players and the stands were packed with parents and grandparents cheering on the action.
“What an atmosphere,” said Rutili. “The kids get better, they love the competition and they have a blast in a positive environment. It helps foster a love of the game in both the kids and the parents, too.”
Allen coaches one of the Jets’ three Squirt teams and also uses station-based practices with lots of skating, small-area games and puckhandling work with a focus on puck possession with his 10U players. His team is going up against squads that have been playing only full-ice and those full-ice defensemen simply fire the puck out of their zone, hope that it isn’t icing, and send their fastest player down the ice in pursuit of the puck.
“It’s not very good (for skill development), and when those kids get older, just shooting the puck in is just a turnover,” said Allen.
“We’re starting to have some success because our kids make plays in traffic, see the ice and have their heads up. Our kids go to the puck and they get it and I tell them not to give it away. Our coaches and parents are not screaming ‘get it out.’ We want them to skate it out or make a play out, but we’re not just getting it out. If you make a mistake, ‘so what,' but we’re not going to throw it away and chase it.”
Both Allen and Rutili credit the input of Barry Smith, the Chicago Blackhawks director of player development, with reinforcing their belief in the skill development track they have implemented. Smith shared ideas and his experiences with the Jets and Cyclones coaches last summer.
“He is a five-time Stanley Cup winner and has coached in the NHL, Sweden and Russia and he talked about how repetition and letting kids be creative is so important,” said Rutili. “Developing ‘puck-friendly’ players is something we’ve taken to heart with the Cyclones. Encouraging them to try new things and being deceptive with the puck on their sticks. And I think we are on the right path and the ADM is a big part of that.”
Allen also appreciated Smith’s message of ‘hammering our parents with education’ and telling them ‘why we are doing what we are doing.’
“We’ve really tried to get our parents to understand what it takes for their kid to be good in the long term, not just be a 'super mite,'” said Allen.
The Jets organization has grown almost 80 percent in the last two seasons, and Allen believes fun is the main reason.
“Kids want to get out and play and our attendance rate at practice is pretty high,” said Allen. “In my mind, that is an indication that the kids and the families are enjoying what they are doing.”