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Growing Rink Means Growing Association Near Chicago

By Greg Bates - Special to USAHockey.com, 08/20/16, 8:30AM MDT

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Oak Park Hockey Academy uses renovated rink, youth initiatives to drive growth

June 2014 marked a turning point for the Park District of Oak Park Hockey Academy (OPHA) in Illinois.

Renovations were transforming Ridgeland Common Ice Arena from a six-month-per-year rink to a year-round rink. That gave OPHA the opportunity to expand what it offered in its program.

“That’s kind of been the rebirth of our program,” said Kyle Sandine, the aquatic and rink manager. “It’s something the community was maybe a little bit hesitant about, making it year-round with the ice arena, but given the staff that we have now, they’ve done a remarkable job of showing that we’re a quality program and getting people excited about being here. The kids are raving about it. ‘When can I get back on the ice? I wish you guys have more ice.’ The kids love it that much.”

Now that two years have passed, OPHA is thriving along with some assistance from USA Hockey.

OPHA answered USA Hockey’s 2 and 2 Challenge in 2015-16, taking advantage of a program that encourages 8-and-under participation in local associations with a goal of acquiring two new players and retaining two additional players than the previous season's total. By growing hockey at that age group, programs experience long-term growth as players continue to develop, and the OPHA was one of six programs in Illinois to meet the goals of USA Hockey’s 2 and 2 Challenge during this past season.

“To have kids that are interested, especially at such a young age, shows there’s an appetite in this area for opportunities to be active and try new things,” Sandine said. “To have it start at such a young level, at the 8U level, it really is rewarding to see that we have that type of draw to our program.”

OPHA used the 2 and 2 Challenge to help boost participation with every age. Last season, starting in the fall and running until the spring, the academy totaled over 1,000 participants in four eight-week sessions.

“We’ve seen our program start as kind of a feeder for some of the younger kids,” Sandine said. “We don’t have a lot of older groups this year, but we’re actually offering our second 14U team for the first time ever. We’ve been really fortunate to see our 10U and 12U flourish. At the 8U level, we’ve debated whether to offer two teams or one. Last year, we saw enough interest from that program to say, yes, we’re going to go ahead with two 8U teams and get as many kids into the program as we can. We want to start giving them those tools to be successful later on.”

The academy offers a learn-to-skate/learn-to-play program that focuses on developing the basics of both skating- and hockey-specific skills. Players are split into two groups: Polar Cubs (ages 3 to 5) and Junior Bears (age 6 and up).

OPHA also runs the Polar Bear Hockey League, which allows kids the chance for more game experience. Using a cross-ice format, the kids play 3-on-3, 4-on-4 or 5-on-5, depending on the age group.

OPHA had implemented USA Hockey’s American Development Model prior to Sandine’s arrival in 2014, but now there’s even more emphasis on the model. And beyond hockey, the park district has also implemented ADM principles in other youth sports offerings to enhance fun and skill development across the board.

“The cross-ice games, the small-sided drills and that type of thing, it keeps kids active and they’re not sitting on the sideline waiting for their turn to go,” Sandine said.

Sandine also loves throwing three or four pucks on the ice for five or six kids to use, as opposed to having one player doing a drill while seven others stand around and watch.

“When you’re teaching a class and you get through the nitty gritty, to the kids, a lot of times the forward swivels can get boring,” said Andrew Prost, the academy’s hockey coordinator. “It’s a good idea to mix it up every once in a while with a little obstacle course or small-area game to make them feel like they’re playing the game. A lot of times, getting them from that point of, ‘OK, I’ve never played hockey before,’ to, ‘I’m ready to be on a team,’ is difficult. They want to play the game; they want to get out there and feel like a hockey player. So you’ve got to provide those instances where they kind of feel like it’s a game.”

Sandine believes a big reason for the resurgence of the hockey program in Oak Park is a solid population base – around 53,000 people live in a three-square-mile area – and having the Chicago Blackhawks’ home rink, the United Center, just eight minutes west certainly doesn’t hurt. However, the rink renovation was a major impetus to the academy’s success, along with offering a welcoming program.

“It provides kids the opportunity to try it in a very unintimidating atmosphere,” Sandine said. “Our rink philosophy as a whole is trying to get as much of the community involved as possible. We’re not like other rinks that solely cater to travel teams or high school teams. We have high school teams in the area, but we’re building that bridge between those programs so that we can say, ‘Starting as a 3- or 4-year-old, your end goal could be one of the two high schools that are in our town. You follow this program and you follow the prescribed path and you can get there.’”

Story by Red Line Editorial

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The Referee Section of USA Hockey recently met during Annual Congress and discussed a variety of issues that will have an impact in the success of the officiating program. Many of those issues relate back to the successful completion of the registration requirements and the retention of officials.

Streamlining the registration process and maximizing the efficiency of our educational platforms are always a priority and the following Q-and-A will highlight those changes that every official should be aware of heading into the new season.

USA Hockey: What is the biggest change made to the registration requirements for this season?

Matt Leaf: With more and more seminars transitioning to a virtual format, the Referees-in-Chief (RIC) have determined that there really is no need for the closed book exams. So, level 2, 3 and 4 officials this season will no longer be required to submit a closed book (or modified online closed book exam) upon completion of the seminar requirement. Instead, the open book exams have been expanded to 75 questions for level 2 and 100 questions each for level 3 and level 4.

The RICs acknowledged that the purpose of the exams has always been as a means to encourage rule knowledge, so more effort was made to put together open book exam questions that will encourage the officials to open the Rules/Casebook in an effort to not only learn the rule, but more importantly, understand the spirit and intent of the rule.

USAH: Are there any other changes to the exam process

ML: The only other change to the exams deal with those who do not pass the original exam. Level 2, 3 and 4 officials will now be able to complete their retake exam 24 hours after failing their original exam. Level 1 officials will still need to wait seven days as we want them to slow down and take some time reviewing the rules so they can gain a better understanding and improve their chances for success on the ice.

USAH: What changes, if any, have been made to the seminars? Are all officials still required to attend a seminar each season?

ML: Yes, except for Tenured Officials, all officials are required to attend a seminar for the level that they apply for each season. So, a Level 1 official must attend a Level 1 seminar, Level 2 attends a Level 2 and then Level 3 and 4 seminars will be combined as one seminar in many cases.

Level 1 officials are strongly encouraged to attend a seminar in their own area and most areas will mainly conduct in-person Level 1 seminars. Although there will be some hybrid Level 1 seminars with both a virtual and in-person component, the key here is that every Level 1 official is required to attend a Level 1 seminar ice session. This may require some additional coordination of scheduling for these new officials, but the reality is this on-ice practice is so critical to any future success they may have on the ice that the RICs feel it is critical that the ice session is part of their educational experience.

Level 2 seminars will also include an on-ice component that Level 2 officials need to be aware of when they plan their seminar attendance. The vast majority of Level 3 and Level 4 seminars will be virtual and officials are encouraged to attend a seminar at a date and time that is convenient for them.

USAH: Have there been any changes to the curriculum for the various levels?

ML: The curriculum for each level was standardized prior to last season and is something that will continue to be updated on an annual basis. The specific presentations, along with the video examples, have all been developed in a manner that provides valuable information specific to each level with new presentations and updated video examples being used to keep things fresh and relevant. In addition, the seminar curriculum has been coordinated with the online modules to minimize duplication and to diversify the required education for each level.

USAH: How about SafeSport and Screening – any changes to those requirements?

ML: The background screening process will remain the same as USA Hockey is required to conduct a national screen every two years on any official who is 18 years of age as of June 1 of the registration year (in this case 2022). Both the background screen and the SafeSport training are mandated by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) per the Amateur Sports Act initiated by Congress.

For SafeSport, any official who was born in 2005, or earlier, is required to complete SafeSport training on a yearly basis. This may include the full training or refresher training that is managed by the US Center for SafeSport. Although it will not have an impact on registration for this season, there was a change in SafeSport that has been made where the training will only be valid for a 12-month period of time and it not consistent with an overlapping season. This will be addressed during the summer of 2023.

USAH: Are there any other changes or areas of emphasis that you want officials to be aware of?

ML: A significant part of the discussions that took place with the RICs focused on the importance mentoring plays in the success and, ultimately, the retention of brand-new officials. USA Hockey loses 50% of our new officials every season and improving that retention rate by just 15% will result in 1,000 additional experienced officials joining our ranks each year. We need to do a better job of bringing new officials into the fold and then supporting them in ways that sets them up for a successful and rewarding experience. The RICs feel strongly the best way to positively impact this issue is through mentoring.

Experienced officials should expect to receive information later this summer that outlines expectations of a formal Mentor Program and asking them to volunteer their time and expertise to become involved as a mentor. Once we have established a pool of officials that are willing to contribute in this way to the next generation of officials, they will be assigned a group of new officials they can reach out to and guide them through the registration process, seminar attendance, assistance in completing the open book exam and reaching out to prospective assignors when the time has come they are ready to work games. Once they have stepped on the ice, that mentor can continue to be a valuable resource for the new official and provide the necessary support needed to be successful. We will also be encouraging local clubs, assignors and officials’ groups to implement Shadow Programs that will complement the Mentor Program and positively enhance the officials’ experience even more.

With everyone working together towards a common goal, USA Hockey can become a leader in addressing the officiating crisis while providing a positive experience to our next generation of officials.

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