The number of youth hockey players in the state of Missouri is on an upward trajectory. Nowhere is that more evident than just outside St. Louis.
The trend is embodied by the Kirkwood Youth Hockey Association, which had its largest-ever enrollment this year with around 350 kids from 6U to 14U. The club’s on-ice success has played a part in its growth, but this USA Hockey Model Association also attributes many other factors to the increase in participation.
“So much of it is from customer satisfaction, if you will,” said John Luetkemeyer, coaching director for Kirkwood. “The number of new recruits that we get from current families just telling other people how happy they are with hockey, as compared to their other sports experiences – it’s creating an interest from non-traditional hockey families.”
When Kirkwood became a USA Hockey Model Association, there were just 11 such associations in the country. There are now 19, and Kirkwood remains the only one in the state of Missouri. The rest of the Model Associations spread from coast to coast, ranging from California to New York and places in between.
As a USA Hockey Model Association, Kirkwood is committed to age-appropriate training, an approved practice-to-game ratio, a certain number of kids per team and even mandatory off days. Kirkwood’s teams take breaks over Thanksgiving and Christmas, with no scheduled practices during the holidays. If players want to skate on their own during that time, it’s on a volunteer basis.
Kirkwood has been a Model Association since 2013, Luetkemeyer said, and it was the first club in St. Louis to adopt the cross-ice format at 8U – something they’ve been doing for about a decade, along with station-based practices throughout the program. One of the perks is that USA Hockey provides Kirkwood with additional resources such as training equipment, both for ice and dry land.
“When you’re a Model Association, it goes above and beyond the regular visits and discussions with members of their staff,” Luetkemeyer said. “When you submit it and get approved, you receive some wonderful extra support from USA Hockey. All the clubs can see a lot of value with USA Hockey.”
The practice strategies Kirkwood has used have resulted in competitive success. This past March, Kirkwood won state titles at three different squirt levels.
But championships aren’t necessarily how Luetkemeyer and others determine the overall success of the association.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt. Everybody likes to win,” Luetkemeyer said. “But what I’m most proud of is that families aren’t as hung up on that as they used to be. They’re so happy with the product and see their child getting better and enjoying it, that the pressure, if you will, put on the coaches to win has been greatly reduced.”
The Kirkwood Youth Hockey Association has been around since 1968, and it boasts several alumni who went on to play in the National Hockey League. That list includes current Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop and St. Louis Blues defenseman Chris Butler, who both played in the KYHA more than a decade ago.
A lot has changed in Kirkwood since then, as the growth and success of the past few years has been unprecedented.
“Talking to people from other clubs, they attribute the [American Development Model] format to the reason they’re seeing growth,” Luetkemeyer said. “No one says we’re recruiting anything differently or doing anything different. Just across the board, clubs’ membership just really enjoys youth hockey because of the format USA Hockey’s provided.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.