The prevailing sentiment is that it wasn’t always like this in Michigan. In fact, longtime observers say it was never like this.
When the bustling burg of Novi hosted 160 girls for USA Hockey player development camp tryouts late last month, evaluators couldn’t help but notice the youngest invitees. And it wasn’t merely the best 2003-born players they noticed, it was all of them, a collective representing 12 associations with more skill, more composure and more polish than any previous birth year.
With such an abundance of precocious talent, Michigan suddenly verged on overshooting its allotment for the Mid-Am Multi-District Camp after years of struggling to produce enough talent. Narrowing the list was more difficult than ever, which is a good omen for girls hockey in the Great Lakes State.
“That group was exceptionally talented; they were exciting to watch,” said Jean Laxton, MAHA girls/women’s vice president. “And it was especially encouraging because those 2003s have clearly benefitted from the American Development Model within their local associations.”
Players from Little Caesars were among the record number of Michiganders selected for August's Mid-Am camp in Kent, Ohio, a building-block event for 2003s who become eligible for USA Hockey’s National Player Development Camp in 2018.
In all, the advancing players represented six different associations. Darren Eliot, director of amateur hockey for Little Caesars, believes the foundation for that success was set years earlier.
“Sometimes it’s an aberration, but in this instance, there’s just a lot of good people doing good things at the younger age groups,” said the former NHL netminder. “When you start looking at development, it goes back to playing cross- or half-ice at 8U, which benefits everybody. These girls got the puck touches they would have missed in full-ice hockey, skating up and down and rarely touching the puck. With smaller ice at 8U and small-area games throughout, that’s where the skill develops and that’s where the fun is, too, so more girls are staying in the game.”
And with more girls staying in the game, more all-girls teams are thriving in Michigan, which Eliot also credits for the emerging talent wave.
“Sometimes you get good female players, but when they play on boys teams, they don’t get the touches; they don’t get the overall development,” said Eliot. “So now, we’re seeing more girls playing on girls teams and getting that development from the younger ages on up, and that’s really important. It’s gaining traction.”
One element that Eliot thinks is critical to Little Caesars’ recent player development successes is an honest emphasis on hockey that doesn’t involve banners or trophies.
“We host a lot of 8U events within the Little Caesars program and the Little Wings, and that’s really where it all begins, at the base of the pyramid, welcoming everybody into hockey and providing an age-appropriate, development-minded place for them to learn the game and hopefully love it,” he said. “There really are no secrets. It just takes everybody being committed to grassroots hockey development.”
It’s a spreading mindset in the Michigan girls hockey ranks, and the grassroots are clearly starting to sprout at the camp level. What comes next depends on the seeds of development, both for the Michigan girls game as a whole, and also for those 14-year-olds advancing to the Mid-Am camp.
“Things change from year to year for these players,” said Eliot. “Being selected is an indication of where they are at this point in time, but it’s no guarantee for the future, so it’s important to go through this process, because it will show them that next step in terms of training and continuing to elevate their game.”
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