Bordered by the magnificent Minnesota River, the Twin Cities suburb of Eagan is nicely tucked away an equal distance between Minneapolis and St. Paul, just seven minutes from the Mall of America. While new home construction has declined in recent years, shifting growth to other areas, Eagan is still the ninth-largest city in the state.
The Eagan Hockey Association has faced its own challenges due to the shifting population, according to Erik Anderson, its coach-in-chief and director of player development. As young families spread to neighboring suburbs looking for brand-new homes, the number of kids playing youth hockey in Eagan has dropped significantly.
This might cripple some programs, but not the EHA. Since adopting USA Hockey’s American Development Model more than six years ago, Anderson says the quality of talent, particularly at the high school level, is better than it’s ever been.
“It’s improved a ton,” said Anderson, who played college hockey at St. Norbert in DePere, Wisconsin. “We are doing a better job by going to a 3-to-1 practices-to-game ratio, by using station-based practices and shared ice, so that there’s more ice touches. In the old days, teams would have a solo sheet for themselves. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have a solo sheet for 12 or 13 12U players.”
One of the biggest successes the EHA has experienced since moving to an ADM-based system is a solid relationship with coaches of high school teams. Anderson, who has coached youth hockey for 25 years, credits Mike Taylor, Eagan’s high school boys coach and ADM instructor, for much of that success.
“He’s very involved and supportive of our youth program,” Anderson explained. “Not every high school coach has a great relationship with his youth like we do. Other high school coaches are envious of [that].”
Another key ADM initiative is what Anderson calls a player-focused mentality, as opposed to a parent-driven mindset. He first learned this after attending the North American Rink Conference & Expo (NARCE) several years ago. Anderson bought into the ADM’s philosophy of complete development of an individual.
“Sometimes, parents are more concerned with wins and losses,” he said. “Other associations might put a premium on winning championships at the 10U levels. Our philosophy is to keep doing age-appropriate [activities] and helping that athlete reach his or her full potential long-term.”
Two-time U.S. Olympian Guy Gosselin, USA Hockey’s ADM regional manager who works closely with Anderson and his program, is impressed with how the EHA has “put the horsepower to the pavement,” as he puts it.
“They’ve had us come in, and we’ve talked to the coaches,” Gosselin said of the EHA. “They’ve really put the kids first as far as development goes, and that’s one of the key factors.”
Eagan reduced the number of games and solo ice sessions while making practices more fun and challenging for the players.
“We’re doing the right things based on the science and everything USA Hockey has learned from European nations that do better with smaller numbers,” Anderson explained. “That’s what we keep preaching: new methodology, new technology.”
In the fall, EHA coaches and staff hold preseason skill camps for players who haven’t skated much over the summer, along with other sessions to prepare kids for tryouts. During one preseason, Anderson took a team to nearby Hamline University to scrimmage with their women’s team, coached by U.S. Olympian and Eagan native Natalie Darwitz.
“She called Coach Taylor and said, ‘Hey, I need a good tune-up for my girls before our regular season starts,’” Anderson recalled.
One annual event the EHA co-hosts with their neighboring program of Eastview is the Play for Patrick fundraiser, held each January. Named after Patrick Schoonover, an Eastview 14U player who collapsed during a game in 2014 and died of a previously undetected heart defect, the tournament raises money to make heart scans more affordable in the hope of catching heart defects during physicals and other medical exams.
Eagan’s annual Thanksgiving Shootout tournament, held Nov. 24-26, attracted 12U and 14U teams in the area. Each team played a minimum of four games, with a player shootout following each semifinal game.
While the ADM has been a major boost to his program, Anderson knows there is still plenty of work to be done.
“We’re always learning,” he said. “We want to have a growth mindset and always try to get better.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.