According to Kansas City Stars Director of Hockey Tom Tilley, the organization’s mantra is “continuous improvement.”
“How do we get better every year?” queried Tilley. “We’re in Kansas, which isn’t a natural hockey market, so we’ll do whatever we have to do to get better.”
One thing the Stars did was “tinker” with their spring program, which had declined to about 130 families last year when the teams played in a citywide spring league. Instead, Tilley and Co-Hockey Director Dean Nelson wanted to create a more fun, casual and inclusive environment for boys and girls at the squirt, peewee and bantam age groups.
“I heard about some of the hockey hotbeds going to a 4-on-4, no-checking format with less structure to make the focus more on fun and creativity than wins and losses,” said Tilley, who played for the St. Louis Blues and also with the Michigan State University team that captured the 1986 NCAA championship under coach Ron Mason.
So the Stars decided to give that a try. When the kids arrived, they found the music turned up and an atmosphere focused on having fun. The changes helped the Stars double their participation to 260 kids and also helped the organization attract enough girls to field its first all-girls team this coming season.
“When it comes down to it, really based on the numbers, my whole focus is how can we make this more fun for the kids,” Tilley said. “It’s all they’re looking for.”
The spring program was just one of many avenues the Stars have used to grow their association. They also established a try-hockey-for-free program. In fact, with 88 participants, the Stars finished fifth in the USA Hockey’s CCM incentive aaward program, sponsored by CCM, during Hockey Week Across America in March.
“It was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had on the ice, watching kids who could barely skate who ended up passing me pucks within one hour of being on the ice,” Tilley said.
Because the Stars ranked in the top five, CCM donated 20 helmets and 20 sets of gloves as a reward.
The Stars also implemented USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
“When we implemented the ADM, I met with a lot of resistance because people couldn’t get their arms around it and neither could the coaches,” Tilley said. “I had USA Hockey guys come in and run clinics, which helped. Some people weren’t ready to embrace it, but we were ready because we knew where the game was going.
“That’s a testament to the ADM. It teaches coaches how effective it is.”
Even though the Stars’ rinks are in Shawnee, Kan., their travel teams play in a St. Louis, Mo., league.
“There are four organizations [in the St. Louis league],” Tilley said. “We’re the largest organization in the metropolitan area, and we have the most house teams and the most travel teams.”
Another reason why the Stars are thriving is that they encourage feedback from families of their players.
“We do an annual year-end, online anonymous assessment where people can tell us what we can do better and what we need to work on,” Tilley said. “We have year-end surveys.”
The Stars also established a goalie-coaching program that has been a plus.
“We need this for our goalies,” Tilley said. “So we allocated a budget for goalie coaching because, when you’re in Kansas, it’s hard to find good goalie coaching.
“What’s also helped us is implementing a system to have a coach-in-chief in place for our house program, because communication is critical. Having a commissioner at every level from 8Under-8 to squirt to bantam has really helped from the standpoint of, ‘What are these kids learning at this level?’ Implementing a coach-in-chief gives me feedback instead of, ‘Can we wait for the end of the year?’”
Tilley and the other Stars board members also stress to their players that there is more to hockey than skating, passing and shooting the puck.
“I tell all the kids I coach that you’re a student-athlete,” he said. “We’re here to put your child in the best position to succeed and learn it and get to the highest level they want to. But more importantly, this is about enjoying the game and doing well in the classroom.
“Most kids who come out of Kansas won’t make it to the NHL. But we want to make sure they respect their opponents, the referees and understand the concept of team play.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.