When Rob Barletta started a youth hockey program in Walpole, Massachusetts in 2001, USA Hockey hadn’t yet fully introduced the American Development Model. But Barletta’s program, initially known as Northeast Elite Hockey before morphing into Walpole Express Hockey in 2005, was already using many of the concepts that have become synonymous with ADM: 3-on-3, dry land skill sessions and games on the weekends.
“The [full] ice is way too big,” explained Barletta, who played college hockey at Salem State before a back injury ended his playing career and turned him toward coaching. “If you get one kid, he can score 10 goals. He can skate around everyone, and other kids never, ever touch the puck.”
Thus, it was an easy decision for Barletta to incorporate ADM principles into the program and begin the process of achieving full Model Association status in 2016. With the help of Massachusetts District Coach-In-Chief Paul Moore and USA Hockey ADM Regional Manager Roger Grillo, the club officially became a model association a year later.
“We went in 100 percent with USA Hockey,” Barletta said. “Paul helped me more than anyone with getting it going. Roger came and spoke to the parents. At the time, I think we were one of 17 in the entire country that were model programs.”
For his part, Grillo is impressed at the growth of the program since its full adoption of ADM.
“Their organization has just exploded,” Grillo said. “They’ve done a really good job keeping the kids they have and bringing new kids. It’s been really positive.”
The club has especially benefited at the lower levels. It offers four phases of development: learn-to-skate, learn-to-play, an 8U program, and the Express youth teams. Learn-to-skate currently has 168 kids enrolled, 60 in learn-to-play, 500 on the youth teams and 75 play on junior teams.
Each player is thoroughly evaluated by the club’s hockey directors before moving up to the next level. Barletta cites a recent example of a 6-year-old learn-to-skate participant who was above average in every phase of the process.
“I said [to his parents], ‘I watched him skate, and I think he’s ready to go to the next level,’” Barletta said. “My full-time directors, Tom Murphy and Todd Stirling, literally don’t miss. We evaluate, then move them up.”
Learn-to-skate is offered in both winter and spring. Kids ages 6 and up get 40 minutes of group lessons with 10 minutes of supervised free practice, while beginners under age 6 have 25-minute skating lessons. In learn-to-play, which is designed for first-time players, kids are divided according to age, previous hockey training, and ability. Sessions focus on stops, starts, crossovers, backwards skating, stickhandling and shooting.
The 8U program is an introductory league for novices ages 5-8. Fundamental skills and game awareness are emphasized, with half-ice games played on an Olympic-sized surface with dividers. Teams use a 4-on-4 format with goalies for nonstop action and plenty of puck touches.
The final phase of development is the Express full season team, with games against other clubs in the Premier Hockey League and Elite 9/Boston Hockey League. Tryouts are held in March each year.
The club has also seen solid growth within its girls program. On the junior side, Barletta estimates five girls have played prep school hockey, with another five going on to play in college. Barletta is especially proud of the Leprechauns Girls Hockey program, which provides players an opportunity to compete without the traditional commitment required for seasonal hockey.
“It’s unbelievable,” Barletta said of the program. “We’ve won many championships. We probably have 40 to 50 girls already committed to Division I that play for us in the summer.”
Above all, Barletta and his staff are committed to making the game enjoyable for kids at all levels. With few exceptions, most parents have bought in to the ADM concept. Teams practice and play at Rodman Arena, along with a two-sheet facility. Barletta also started the RB Hockey School, an intense but positive learning environment with educational skills camps focusing on the individual player rather than the group as a whole.
“My goal is to fill up this academy, because the development model with it is unbelievable,” he explained.
Successful implementation of the ADM requires an all-out commitment at all levels, which is a major reason Walpole Express Hockey is poised to see even bigger growth in the future.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.