Over the holidays, a collection of the best under-20 hockey players in the world gathered in Edmonton, Alberta, for the IIHF World Junior Championship. In a stunning display of skill and teamwork, Team USA took home the gold, topping Canada, 2-0, in the championship game.
While the result may have been surprising to some prognosticators outside of USA Hockey – Canada’s squad was comprised entirely of first-round NHL draft picks – it is another indication of how the long-term process behind the American Development Model is having a positive effect on our players.
Flint Doungchak, Pacific District Coach-in-Chief for USA Hockey, talked about results versus process before the gold medal game.
“That week is a culmination of the results-based mindset because everybody gets excited about the chance to win a gold medal,” Doungchak said. “Whatever happens, win or lose, it doesn’t mean we’re doing a good job or bad job in our player development. The way to measure that “good job” when it comes to development is, ‘Have we maximized the individuals so that they can achieve their best capabilities at this point in time and over their lifetime?’”
While it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of gold and what it means for USA Hockey, the players on the team are nowhere near their hockey primes.
“It is a process and these kids are still developing,” Doungchak said. “When you ask professional scouts or general managers, they are going to tell you that their best hockey is still ahead of them.”
The gold medal game, just like a Sunday game at the local rink between two youth teams, is only a snapshot of that progress. It is up to youth hockey coaches to nurture that development process for every single kid, no matter their age, talent level or experience.
A player who scores 30 goals at 10U should not be heralded as the next Auston Matthews, just like a struggling C-level 12U player should not be cast aside.
The U.S. National Junior Team claimed gold at the 2021 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship in Edmonton, Alberta.
“You don’t hear anyone jumping on TV and talking about how awesome Cole Caufield was seven years ago,” Doungchak said. “No one really cares because everybody looks at it as a process. Nobody looks at it as, ‘Oh, wow, that’s an indicator at what type of player he’s going to be, because at 13 he scored however many goals.’”
Doungchak has been a part of the Western Regional High Performance Camp for 14-year-olds in Colorado Springs. He said it is amazing to see the improvement of five players from Team USA who attended the camp in 2015 including Dustin Wolf, Cam York, Brendan Brisson and Ryan Johnson. Physical growth can also be astounding. In 2016, Tyler Kleven attended the camp and was listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds. He was listed in the WJC game program at 6-foot-4 and 201-poinds.
While the gold medal is very important for USA Hockey, the big-picture mentality and culture of long-term development is crucial to its mission.
“That’s an interesting attitude: they’re good now, but they’re going to be really awesome later,” Doungchak said. “We’ve all turned our thinking to the process of development. That is also a testament to the ADM.”
Doungchak sees education to coaches, parents and players as three pillars of changing attitudes towards the long-term process of development over results-based thinking.
ADM has always focused on developing long-term success of players, but Doungchak says USA Hockey is improving their education with coaches.
“We’re getting better at teaching adults how to coach and how to coach in the long term,” Doungchak said.
While winning is not the primary focus of development, he said that it’s not something to be completely glossed over.
“We’re not saying that being competitive or winning is bad. That’s actually the opposite of what we’re saying,” Doungchak said. “We’re just saying there’s a right way to win and that what a lot of winning [coaches] worry about is just in the immediate short term.”
USA Hockey is working towards educating parents to what coaches are doing and why. Coaches can help with this process by having conversations about long-term development or pointing parents towards USA Hockey’s ADM materials.
“Parents tend to be short-term focused,” he said. “All parents want what’s best for their kids. We’ve got an opportunity to educate them to long-term athletic development, how that development process works and why that’s good for their child.”
The parent education piece is important because it can influence the third pillar: the players.
“If that kid isn’t getting good feedback from mom and dad, but they’re getting good feedback from coach, then you have some of that disconnect,” Doungchak said.
Kids should be upset after a loss, but not because they were benched in the third period of a 2-1 game. The decisions we make for our players should be based on development, not results.
“If people step back for a minute as adults, whether it’s parents or coaches, it’s really easy to manipulate an outcome. We pick what teams we play, we pick what tournaments we go to, we pick what teams we play on. It’s a way to manipulate immediate outcomes,” Doungchak said. “We do it all the time, ‘Oh, I don’t want to play that team because we’ll beat them or get beat by them.’
“But those decisions should be made for development. The kids don’t care. If the team loses, later that day the kid who’s upset after a loss will be eating ice cream and forget about it.”
Coaches can use the World Junior Championship win as an example of the process of long-term player development. Although the tourney lasted only two weeks, the journey for the players started long ago when they were pushing chairs out on the pond and learning to skate and it will continue well beyond the tourney. Some of the players will end up in the National Hockey League, some will get passed by guys who didn’t make the World Junior team.
The same should be said for youth hockey players. What kind of player a kid is at 8U, 10U or 12U doesn’t mean much of anything in terms of what their full potential is.
Let’s give them the best environment possible to grow, thrive and love the game with their friends.
“Making the mistake of saying who and what a player does at 10, 12, 14 or 16 and that’s who they are forever is 100 percent utterly false,” Doungchak said. “We’re talking 20 years. If a player starts skating at 4 years old, they’re not going to maximize their skill until they’re at least 24 years old.”