Damon Whitten had the luxury of learning from the late Ron Mason during his four playing seasons of college hockey at Michigan State University. Shortly thereafter, Whitten joined the coaching ranks – first with his alma mater, and then stops at Wayne State, Alaska Anchorage and Michigan Tech.
He is now in his fourth season as head coach of Lake Superior State University, and at the same time, he’s a hockey dad, helping with his son’s local 8U team in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
USA Hockey caught up with Whitten, a Brighton, Mich., native, to get his tips and insight for youth hockey coaches.
USA Hockey: If a new youth hockey coach came up to you and said, ‘What do I do here?’ what would you tell him?
Damon Whitten: I help with our 8U team here with my son. I have a lot of interaction locally, which is fun. To me, the kids have to have fun. That’s the biggest thing – get them out there, let them enjoy it, have fun, encourage them. But it’s the skills and small-area games, we want our kids to have a lot of fun and make sure that they’re excited to come back for their next practice. Start with a game, finish with a game, let them smile, let them enjoy it, and hopefully they get some sweat, some exercise, some good habits out of it. You have to encourage them and let them have fun.
USA Hockey: As a college coach, do you want to see youth coaches working on skill development or winning games?
Whitten: Skills. Especially the way recruiting has gone younger and younger. You go watch whatever level – obviously at the higher levels like 14U, 16U, you don’t want to see them standing and playing a passive 1-3-1 or something like that. We want to see hockey players who have different abilities – to be able to play with speed, to make reads at high speed and certainly make plays at high speed. Don’t suck the fun out of it. Let them play, let them be creative. You can teach in that environment, but hopefully do it with some pace and at a high speed.
USA Hockey: What are your thoughts on cross-ice hockey for 8U?
Whitten: I love it. My son’s playing 8U and it’s great – all the kids get puck touches, they’re involved. It was a tough roll-out in our community, but I think people who are in coaching and understand a little bit the deeper levels of it, they realize the value that there’s a lot more engagement from the players, a lot more enjoyment and a lot more skill development in cross-ice hockey because they’re touching pucks more, they’re getting more opportunities versus the big sheet, where your dominant two or three players possess the puck most of the game. I think people are coming around across the country, and certainly it’s a much better model for our talent to develop in the U.S.
USA Hockey: Are you an advocate for station-based drills?
Whitten: Those are great. It’s funny, because we’re obviously a border town, and we get some of the Canadian-based teams coming into our building as well, and they follow the USA Hockey ADM now. They’re doing two teams on a sheet and station-based. It’s not fun to stand in line and not touch the puck, the kids have all the energy and we want to keep them moving. We want to keep them competing and having fun, so it’s way better to go see that as a parent, as well, whether it’s soccer practice, hockey practice, we’re there for them to get the energy out and to learn some motor development. I love to see the station-based training all across the sports spectrum.
USA Hockey: Do college hockey programs like Lake Superior State use small-area games?
Whitten: Oh, multiple times per day. Usually, second or third drill once the guys are warmed up, we’ll get into it, and that’s the name of the game. Everything happens in such a quick manner and a tight area that, if you can’t play in those games, you’re not going to be a NCAA Division I player or a pro player. You have to be able to play in those small areas, those tight areas, and make decisions, make plays in those areas. We’ll do one, two or three drills into it, and then try to finish with it on a lot of days as well. It’s not different for our guys, even though they’re 20, 25, whatever it is, they like it, too. They want to compete, they want to beat the guy across from them, and it brings a lot of excitement to the team as well as development.
USA Hockey: How important is communication between the coach and the parents/players and making sure everyone’s on the same page?
Whitten: Communication, from the coaching side of it, even with our adults, that’s been a major focus. The more clear we can be, on the same page, the more understanding they have, the more enjoyment they get out of it. I think it becomes even more important as you get younger. As a parent, I see it with my own kid. It has be very clear – if he doesn’t have a very crystal-clear understanding of what he’s supposed to do, it’s hard for him to put that into action. I think that’s helped me at a college level, and at the youth level, too. We don’t deal with the parents as much, but as a parent, it’s nice to have a feeling of what our youth coach is running and he does a really good job of laying out expectations and standards of what he expects on and off the ice. I think it leads to a fun environment and a place where our kids up here in the Soo can’t wait to get to the rink every night. I think as a parent, that’s why you do it, so that your kid has a smile on their face and go out there and work hard and get better.
USA Hockey: How important is it for the kids sometimes to just be free, get that pond hockey-like training where they can figure things out for themselves?
Whitten: It’s so hard in today’s environment with the ice rates. It’s expensive to get ice and there never seems to be enough time. We’re lucky up here that we get to do the outdoor rinks and have a long stretch of that, so we probably get a little more exposure here. Kids don’t sign up and come out to stand in lines and wait their turn. They want to be active and free-thinking and free-flowing. The more you can incorporate that, it just leaves them excited to come back and ready to get back at it and keep developing. It’s important to find a way to build that free-play into your practice plans, whether to start or finish with some free time to let them play and be a kid.