In the summer of 2013, Alex Kaplenko brought his then 4-year-old daughter to a girls Give-Hockey-a-Try Day hosted by the Tri-Valley Minor Hockey Association in Dublin, California. He didn’t know it then, but that day would lead to a new and exciting chapter for both him and the association.
It wasn’t his first encounter with the program. Kaplenko, who was born in Russia, played youth hockey for the TVMHA during his high school years, following his family’s move to California from the East Coast. He was co-captain of the 18U team that won the 1998 state championship.
In 2013, a plan to develop a girls program was beginning to take shape. William Stone, TVMHA’s president at the time, noticed a significant increase in the number of girls playing hockey in other parts of California. He launched the Lady Blue Devils along with Johanna Asher, who became the program’s director. Kaplenko, who has coached every level of youth hockey for 16 years, was asked to help, along with another coach, John Young.
After serving four years as director, Asher stepped aside last year due to the demands of her job as a sales executive. Her introduction to hockey came about in a rather unique way. She didn’t play her first game until her mid-40s, but it didn’t take her long to fall in love with the sport.
“I figure skated as a child, so I could skate,” she recalled. “When my husband couldn’t play [he learned to play as an adult too],[KW1] I took his place because I thought, gosh, that looks like fun. I really want to try and do that.”
When it came to choosing a new director, Kaplenko was a perfect fit, according to Asher.
“He was there from Day 1,” she explained. “He was there as a coach, he was at our first Give-Hockey-a-Try Day. He’s been a structural rock.”
The Lady Blue Devils have seen steady growth during its five seasons. More than 130 girls have gone through the program at one time or another, with 65 players currently enrolled. Another 20 play for Tri-Valley’s co-ed teams.
“We welcome girls of all ages and skill levels into the program. It feels like almost every year we start with a handful of 8-and-under girls in the fall and nearly double in size by the end of the season,” Kaplenko said. “We had lots of success in attracting new girls through word of mouth, siblings, social and web presence and especially through the Give-Hockey-a-Try program run by Tri Valley Ice, our home rink in Livermore.”
Practices are held at a two-sheet mini rink at Tri Valley Ice. 10U and 12U teams work together, with about 20 kids on the ice at the same time. Drills are broken down into stations, allowing coaches to run multiple groups. Kaplenko sees several benefits of playing in a smaller space, a key component of USA Hockey’s American Development Model.
“It allows us to separate the kids by size and skill so we have an appropriate mix in each group,” he explained. “It allows us to keep a smaller number of kids in each group. My focus in all our drills is to make sure there are lots of reps, lots of puck touches, and high tempo while efficiently utilizing precious ice time.”
As for using the smaller ice sheets, that’s not a constraint, it’s by design. Kaplenko pointed out that it’s easy to skate in a straight line, with or without a puck. But players who succeed at the higher levels are often required to make plays in high-traffic areas.
“That’s exactly why we play on smaller sheets,” Kaplenko said. “If you can excel playing in a confined space, over the long term, you’ll be a better player on a full sheet of ice.”
One of the high points for the Lady Blue Devils this season came in December, when they attended USA Hockey’s The Time is Now Tour in San Jose with a game between the U.S. National Women’s Team and Canada. The girls participated in clinics run by USA Hockey, and volunteered on-ice during the coaches clinic.
“This was a team-building event for the girls,” Kaplenko said. “It was pretty inspiring for the kids to see women play at that level of hockey on such a prominent stage.”
Kaplenko envisions having enough girls to put together a travel team. He compares the growth of a young program like the Lady Blue Devils to the development of a youth hockey player.
“I tell families it’s going to take about three years to create the resemblance of a hockey player, and about five years to make you a decent hockey player, relatively speaking,” he said. “In Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3, our focus was always effort, continued learning, and getting exposure and experience. This year, we’re actually seeing on-ice success. A good chunk of those kids have been with me since Day 1. The on-ice success, both in the quality of the game played and on the outcome on the scoreboard, where we won the program’s first two tournament championships this year, is really resonating with families. That’s helping increase morale, motivation and support.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.