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Youth Hockey, Ford Ice Center Rising in Nashville

04/17/2014, 10:30am EDT
By Jayson Hron - USA Hockey

Many in the hockey world are easing their way into summer vacation right about now, but Craig MacDonald is not among them. He’s shifting into high gear.

The Buffalo, N.Y., native was recently named hockey director for the under-construction Ford Ice Center, a public-private partnership between the NHL’s Nashville Predators and the local government, aimed at continuing the growth of hockey and ice-skating in Middle Tennessee.

Scheduled to open in August, the facility will include two ice sheets, and serve as home to the Nashville Predators’ youth hockey and learn-to-skate programs and the newly announced Scott Hamilton Skating Academy.

MacDonald, 37, will manage the facility’s hockey programs, with an extra-sharp focus on growing youth hockey. He’s well suited for the mission, with a passion for the game and a progressive reputation built, in part, by his three years as hockey director in Evansville, Ind., where he helped engineer a 30-percent gain in hockey membership at Swonder Ice Arena.

“I really wanted to make hockey my vocation,” said MacDonald. “In fact, my only stipulation when I took a sales position in the banking industry was that there had to be a hockey rink within 30 minutes. It didn’t take long to realize where my heart was, so I started working summer camps with Mitch Korn, the Predators goaltending coach, and he was good about mentoring me.”

That’s when MacDonald’s relationship with Nashville took root. At the same time, he threw himself headlong into USA Hockey’s coaching education program and NARCE hockey director training. He also helped Evansville obtain gold status in USA Hockey’s 2-and-2 Challenge while serving as a peewee and learn-to-skate coach.

Eventually, as the Ford Ice Center project moved forward, MacDonald was offered the opportunity to put his passion to work in a larger city. He accepted in February, began working in March and quickly turned his attention to Nashville’s burgeoning hockey scene.

New Rink, New Programs, New Opportunities

Nashville will officially christen its new facility with an NHL prospects tournament in early September, loosely paralleling the annual Traverse City (Mich.) NHL Prospects Tournament hosted by the Detroit Red Wings. Music City invitees will include the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, giving locals an up-close-and-personal opportunity to watch NHL prospects in the unofficial launch to the professional hockey season.

“It’ll be an exciting event for hockey enthusiasts here,” said MacDonald. “It’s a great way to see elite players from a whole different perspective, and Nashville does a great job with marketing, so it’ll be a spectacle.”

In the meantime, MacDonald is living the dream as one of Nashville’s hockey ambassadors. He spent last Friday in an elementary school on behalf of the Predators’ Hockey Rules program, which teaches hockey skills in physical education classes throughout Middle Tennessee.

“We set the kids up in stations, just like a station-based on-ice practice, but we do it in their gyms with street hockey gear that the Predators donate to the schools,” said MacDonald. “Then we teach the fundamentals.”

Nashville’s diverse population includes numerous immigrants from non-hockey locales, plus some new-to-hockey natives, making for a varied teaching experience.

“Probably a quarter of the kids have at least seen the game or had siblings who played in the local high school hockey league,” said MacDonald. “But a huge number don’t know anything about hockey. Three weeks ago we went to a school where more than 40 percent of the students were ESL (English as a Second Language) and they came from places like Laos, Burma, Cuba and El Salvador. But once they see hockey, they get excited, because they correlate it with soccer and they adopt it as their wintertime sport.”

As he builds Nashville’s youth program, MacDonald does so with an eye toward inviting them to ice hockey.

“One of my primary goals is to create programs that welcome multi-sport athletes,” said MacDonald. “So I’ve reached out to the local youth sports community to gather information about start and end dates, so we can have programs that allow kids to play other sports, too. We don’t want to just say that kids should play multiple sports, we want our programming to reflect that.”

MacDonald’s belief in long-term athlete development principles parallels his commitment to USA Hockey’s American Development Model.

“I love the ADM concept,” he said. “I brought it to Evansville, and initially it was met with some skepticism, but after the second week, the ADM supporters – the masses – won out. As a result, the amount of skill – especially skating skill – increased throughout the organization, without a doubt. We also increased our membership numbers to the point where we could field a traveling team in every age group.”

Implementing the ADM also improved the facility’s bottom line, because in Evansville, every six new youth players brought one new adult player to the local senior league, which expanded from seven teams to 12. The resulting demand for more adult hockey ice time proved beneficial. It’s a recipe for success that could certainly repeat itself at the Ford Ice Center.

“I don’t want to slice the pie differently in Nashville, I want to make the pie bigger, and the ADM is a differentiator that can help do that,” said MacDonald.

Foundation for Success

The Music City talent pool is growing. Twelve Nashville teams have appeared in USA Hockey youth national tournaments since 2011, four have made it to championship games and one earned the top prize, a trend MacDonald expects will continue. He plans to build on that success and replicate the growth seen in some other successful southern markets. He cites the city’s recent youth hockey accomplishments, along with its rapidly strengthening high school program, as the precursors of even bigger things.

“The level of skill is getting to a point where they can feed upper-level teams, so it’s only a matter of time,” said MacDonald. “Hopefully we can see similar growth to what Dallas experienced when it started implementing its youth programs after the Stars arrived.”

He expects the ADM to play an instrumental role in that growth.

“My youth hockey experience, as a player, was in Chicago until eighth grade, and then Buffalo, and the biggest difference I see is that there was always a day when you never touched pucks. It was all skating and it was tough to get motivated. We’re seeing a pullback from that now, to making it more fun, keeping kids moving. And in station-based practices, we’re teaching the same skills as those old power-skating days, but we’re doing it in a way that doesn’t make kids hate going to the rink. That can’t help but keep things moving in a positive direction.”

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