Last month, USA Hockey announced three youth hockey organizations that earned designation as USA Hockey Model Associations. One of the two Sunshine State organizations to earn the honor was the California Heat.
The Heat has teams at 16U, 14U, 12U, 10U and 8U. Centered in the San Fernando Valley, the organization is one of the oldest in the Southern California Amateur Hockey Association (SCAHA).
There are now 24 youth organizations around the county that have earned the designation of USA Hockey Model Association. Each has committed to implement programming dedicated to age-appropriate, age-specific skill development in accordance with USA Hockey's American Development Model throughout the 8U, 10U and 12U age classifications.
Alec Benson-Dunn, California Heat hockey director, was thrilled at the honor and discussed how going through the process and program is impacting hockey in Southern California.
USA Hockey: For those who don’t know what a USA Hockey Model Association is, what does that entail?
Alec Benson-Dunn: Basically, it’s transitioned our program to model USA Hockey’s ADM, which they put a lot of work into studying the growth of children into athletes. It’s trying to prepare them to be well-rounded athletes from the start of their time in the game to the end of their game. Giving them the best base [of skills] as possible, so they’re prepared to get to their highest level and really learn to love the sport.
USA Hockey: What does achieving Model Association status mean for your program?
Benson-Dunn: I think it really shows people on the outside what our program is dedicated to: that we’re here to build the whole athlete. It’s not our goal to worry about the wins and losses – obviously you play to win – but we’ve really taken the approach that it’s more important to develop players’ skills and help them become the best players they can be, so as they grow older, more doorways open. I think it really shows we’re committed to what USA Hockey has put out and ADM, and that we’re determined to give the best product we can as a youth hockey organization.
USA Hockey: What steps did you take in getting the Model Association designation?
Benson-Dunn: Our previous president, Jennifer Sprow, contacted USA Hockey and they put us in contact with Ken Martel (technical director of USA Hockey’s American Development Model). Ken basically walked me through all the steps and was phenomenal. He showed me the guidelines of USA Hockey; what the goals are; and helped us incorporate new approaches, new ideas. Not completely changing us and our program, but adding more to it. He showed us the goals of ADM – things on ice as well as off-ice – it was great working with him.
USA Hockey: Is it a grocery list of items your organization had to do?
Benson-Dunn: Yes. You can check it out online. They have a large list of things you need to get done – from collecting practice plans and how they are implemented to taking breaks throughout the season and doing other activities so they’re not year-round hockey players. Collecting our practice plans was a big one for us. It’s challenging when you have coaches who have been there for a while, but Ken was great. We’d send him stuff, and he would never change, but offer advice. Our coaches were very eager to make those changes. We’ve seen a lot of growth from our players, but we’ve really seen a lot in the willingness and want to be at the rink, which has been huge for us.
USA Hockey: Why are these principles important to long-term development?
Benson-Dunn: Once we created a mission statement for what our club wanted to be and started to implement those things at different levels, starting at 8U and our in-house program and moving up, that gave us a base for what our goal is. Being a coach, every single game you go, ‘Oh my gosh, we need to get better at this or that.’ But once we started to create a mission and trying to get to this place with our teams, we started to plan our practices weeks and months in advance rather than worry about a particular outcome of a game. We started thinking more about the season as a whole.
It gave us more confidence in what the process would be and what the outcomes will be. It makes it easier to talk to your families and parents and say, hey, this is a process. It’s not the end step with this one game; it’s trying to get the players to the next level and prepared with their hockey abilities.
By implementing just that part, it’s been huge. The outcome of an individual game isn’t live or die anymore. You’re not going there the next week and completely altering your practice plan because you’re not getting shots from the points or you’re not winning certain battles. We always leave open spots in our practice plans, per se, to implement things that are glaring, but adding [skill development] and power skating to every single practice, it’s phenomenal to see our 8U and 10U players and how much they developed.
USA Hockey: How do we as coaches, administrators, volunteers and parents, transform hockey in America to this long-term thinking and athlete development?
Benson-Dunn: Having meetings and keeping communication with the parents and showing them that there’s a (long-term) goal in mind is huge. It’s a tricky thing because you’re going to have a lot of that old way of thinking. SCAHA, five years ago, went back and forth on cross-ice for 8U. I said they just have to make a plan and stick with it. They have to pick something and go with it because it will be a year or two before people, who were used to the norm, transition and say, ‘Oh, this is what it’s supposed to be like.’ But you have guys like Ken (Martel) who come out and talk to the coaches. If organizations really start to preach that this is the goal and start to implement it more and more and show families that this is the best way to get the most from your athlete, I think we’ll see a lot more people buying in and a lot more people seeing it’s the right path for their players.
USA Hockey: Do you think this will help grow the game?
Benson-Dunn: We think it’s the way of the future for U.S.-born players and you’ll get more out of a higher percentage of players, rather than just a couple high-end guys. When push comes to shove, our measure of success is how many players we’re putting into adult leagues, because there are so few who go on to NCAA Division I hockey. The more of these players that we get that become lifelong hockey players, that’s really a big goal to see more and more players who love the sport and want to be around it for a lifetime.