It started in a parking lot and ended in a state championship.
Suffice it to say, it’s been quite a season for the Southeastern Connecticut Youth Hockey Association.
Relegated to the arena parking lot after maintenance problems shuttered their rink in September, the SECYH Seahawks proved to be the ultimate in adaptability. They moved six weeks of practice to the asphalt, modifying USA Hockey’s American Development Model principles to fit a dry-land environment. Six months later, the SECYH squirts hoisted a state-championship trophy, on ice, at the very arena that had been closed for repairs.
“It was a challenging year, but definitely a happy ending,” said Dan Williamson, coach of title-winning squirts. “And kudos to the players, the parents, the board and the president for keeping the organization together and keeping the faith.”
As association president Bob Casagrande recounted in October, “we had to do something, so I spoke with some of the coaches and we said, ‘Why don’t we start dry-land training, using the ADM that we incorporated into our practices last year?’” Ty Hennes and Kenny Rausch from USA Hockey then descended on Norwich to help SECYH coaches install the plan.
“They had strong leadership at the board level and outstanding buy-in from the coaches,” said Hennes. “Because of that, the parents accepted the ADM, which created a positive environment all-around. It was exciting to see everything come together so well for an organization that overcame more than its fair share of adversity.”
High Hopes in the Heat of September
Armed with ADM practice plans, high hopes and a heap of good intentions, the coaches and players took the asphalt in September. Casagrande said they did almost everything they’d normally do on ice: stick-handling drills, passing drills, shooting drills, even one-on-one battle drills.
“We had a lot of people who basically thought the rink was going to fail and we wouldn’t have a hockey association,” said Casagrande. “We couldn’t have those kids sitting there doing nothing until the rink opened, so we carried the dry-land training as far as we could.”
When the Seahawks did take to the ice for early-season games at other rinks, the results were impressive.
“They held their own against teams that had been on the ice for a month,” said Casagrande. “So the use of the dry-land training, the use of the ADM, I really think is what made the difference.”
Finally on Ice
By mid-October, the Seahawks were finally back on home ice. Williamson and his assistant coaches – Frank Gesino, Rob Nowosad and Steve Turchetta – continued implementing ADM principles, using station-based practices and rotating players through every position.
“Everybody got a chance to play at least four games at every position, and even the two goalies switched every week so they had an opportunity to skate out,” said Williamson.
During practices, Williamson’s squirts shared the ice with mites and a house team, a format that revolutionized the SECYH’s entire offering.
“By staying true to the ADM, using station-based practices with multiple teams on the ice, we were able to get one more practice per week over previous seasons without having to increase costs,” explained Williamson. “And we always had three teams on the ice – up to 52 kids – so we split the ice in thirds rather than halves, which reduced costs even more, even though we were buying the same amount of ice. Because of the cost savings, we were able to open up hockey to many more players than we could have in the past. We even created a house flex program where players could register for a pro-rated short season, all because of how we were able to reapportion the ice.”
Buoyed by having experience and success at every position throughout the regular season, the Seahawks were confident heading into the state tournament. Their confidence proved apropos as they went 2-1 in three competitive round-robin games, punching their ticket to the play-downs. In the semifinals, they fell behind 1-0, but rallied to win against Eastern Connecticut, a team they played twice and beat once during the regular season. That set up the championship game against West Hartford in which the Seahawks once again fell behind but rallied to win, 3-2. It was the first time in a decade that SECYH squirts claimed a state title.
“It was great to see the incredible joy on each player’s face as they skated around our rink with the championship trophy,” said Williamson. “And it was amazing to win it in front of our home crowd and the Seahawks family. As we pulled out of the parking lot that night, I stopped in the middle and asked the players if they remembered that just six months earlier, we were practicing in this lot because we didn’t have ice.”
Lessons and Ideas
Necessity was a stern teacher, but SECYH board members and coaches passed with flying colors. In so doing, they learned how flexible they could be while still succeeding in developing players’ skills – even to the point of not needing ice time in September.
The rags-to-riches journey made quite an impression.
“The ADM opened up a whole world of possibilities for us as an organization,” said Williamson. “And it opened up a whole new way of thinking about the game for me. Instead of thinking about drills on a big scale, now I find myself thinking about teaching skills in smaller areas, because reducing the space forces players at all levels to think and act quicker.
“Now that I have a full season of ADM practice under my belt, I feel confident that my team can be successful with as little as a quarter of the ice for team practices and station-based training for the rest.”
It’s difficult to argue. He’s got a state championship, a barrel of asphalt-scarred sticks and a squad of happy kids to back his claim.