When the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2004, there were fewer than 9,000 hockey players in Florida. A decade later, the state’s hockey-playing population had swelled nearly 35 percent, making the Sunshine State a much more fertile ground for player development. But with that rapid growth came challenges. One of them was the wide skill gap between hockey-playing children and those who were new to the game. Beginners often graduated from learn-to-play programs into an environment dominated by experienced players. Overwhelmed by the pace, some never returned, trading their like-new blades for more familiar footwear.
Michigan native Doug Wemple and a passionate group of coaches made it their mission to reverse the trend.
Armed with an outsider’s perspective, Wemple joined the cause as hockey manager at Orlando’s RDV Sportsplex Ice Den. The longtime Michigan hockey volunteer could see that he needed a bridge, something that could span the icy expanse between learn-to-play and Floridian house hockey, which, unlike Michigan, was dotted with travel-level players gobbling up scarce extra ice time in a state with only 36 rinks.
This summer, Wemple took a step toward solving the problem with an innovative Learn-to-Play Plus pilot program that provided one practice and one game per week, with a twist, for eight weeks. The twist involved coaches skating on the ice during games to help provide immediate feedback to players. The laser-focus on skill refinement, through station-based practices and active on-ice game coaching, accelerated the players’ development, boosting them up to speed with more experienced peers.
“It was phenomenal to see the growth in them over the course of the eight weeks,” said Wemple. “And the feedback from parents was amazing. Overwhelmingly positive.”
Scott Glazier, another Michigan transplant, was among the coaches. A major proponent of long-term athlete development principles, he liked how the format allowed for working within the attention span of younger players and teaching in the moment, while the play was fresh in their minds.
“I’ve seen the benefits of marking a place on the ice where an event occurred and then, when the player’s shift ended, bringing them back to that location and safely re-creating the moment and coaching them through it,” said Glazier. “Being able to bring them back to the situation almost immediately, but after the adrenaline rush, enables them to calmly reflect, learn and reinforce what occurred, how they responded and what resulted. It provided great teaching moments that the kids seemed better able to absorb than if you tried to discuss a certain situation with them an hour later, when the game was over.”
For Glazier and his fellow coaches, the art was in choosing when to interject and to what degree.
“It was critical to engage at the right time and not disrupt the overall flow of the game,” he said. “And the coaches did an amazing job. They adapted quickly to getting themselves into the right places to witness, reinforce and coach. The whole concept validated itself during the final weeks, when we reduced the number of coaches and interactions on the ice. By the final week, we had no coaches on the ice and we watched the kids play at a completely different level than where they started. It was an amazing game to watch.”
After the emphatic inaugural success, Wemple announced that the Ice Den would launch a formal LTP Plus program Sept. 27. Registration surged, necessitating a 60-player cap for this opening session of 2015-16. Enthusiasm in Orlando is high, both for the program and the new hockey season.
“The growth in hockey has been great,” said Wemple. “We’ve got two sheets here and we’re starting to bust at the seams.”
As for the LTP Plus offering, he sees a similarly bright outlook.
“Interest has really surpassed all expectations,” he said. “It’s a great development program that puts the kids in an environment to succeed. The station-based practices are great, the coaches are phenomenal and that’s what makes it a success.”
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