When the River Falls Youth Hockey Association and the Blackhawk Hockey Association of Baldwin wanted to grow girls’ hockey in western Wisconsin, the two associations decided the best way forward was working together.
The result is the BlackCats girls’ teams — a combination of the Blackhawks and the Wildcats, the name River Falls uses for its youth travel teams.
From the top down and the bottom up, the two associations work together in creating a united system that has resulted in a sustained program and success on the ice.
The teams thrive while playing competition from two states. They play their regular-season league schedule across the border as part of Minnesota’s District 2 before remaining in-state for postseason competition, starting in Wisconsin’s District 6.
The players from the BlackCats all advance to one co-op high school team, which plays as the Saint Croix Valley Fusion. The Fusion won three straight Wisconsin state high school championships from 2009 to 2011.
“Continuity is the big thing between all the levels,” said BlackCats girls hockey coordinator Keith VanDell, who works closely with Fusion high school coach Matt Cranston. “We’re teaching things that we believe in and developing them to think about the high school team when they’re 10 as far as what they need to know and how they have to play and think.”
The Fusion won the WIAA Sportsmanship Award in each of their three state-championship seasons and again in 2014.
Before they form a varsity program for the area to be proud of, the BlackCats excel in girls’ youth hockey, maintaining the numbers from one age group to the next while consistently producing winners.
“The girls we do get, we tend to keep,” said VanDell, who has been coordinating the program since the two neighboring associations formed their girls partnership in 2004-05 and is now serving as U10 coach on a team that includes the youngest of his four daughters. “I can’t remember the last one to quit. Once they get there, we make it fun for them.
“When we do have fun, we tend to win a lot.”
VanDell said all BlackCats coaches — as well as the Fusion high school coaches — follow the same theories.
“We’ve been doing ADM-type things since before it was formalized,” VanDell said of USA Hockey’s American Development Model. “We were using European-type coaching systems, more about puck possession, especially for the girls.
“Small games are something we’ve been doing ever since we started the program. Every single practice is a minimum of 15 minutes of small games. We do skills and drills and a few other things, but we don’t work on a lot of breakouts and things; we kind of just play.
“We piece together what they know and fix it later.”
With an emphasis on puck possession through all levels, the BlackCats have won two state titles each at the U10 and U14 levels and one in U16.
“We’re not going off on different tangents,” VanDell said of the various coaches, who often work together in combined practices before the teams split off into their own groups. “We’re teaching creativity and puck possession. We figure if you maintain puck possession for 80 percent of the game, you’re going to win a lot of games.
“We really focus on having the puck.”
The BlackCats have teams competing at the U10, U12 and U14 levels this season and were able to create a second U14 team during the 2013-14 season.
Growth for the BlackCats, and the Saint Croix Valley Fusion program they feed into, is imminent. Plans call for the Fusion to add a junior varsity program next season, smoothing the transition from the BlackCats to the Fusion.
VanDell sees two BlackCats U10 teams as likely next season, and there should soon be enough girls at the U8 level for them to break away from their current co-ed teams within their associations.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.