Many youth sports programs draw on a common belief that if a child doesn’t start early, and stick with that one sport, he or she will have a difficult time achieving success.
It’s true that sports like women’s gymnastics lend themselves to early specialization, since those athletes’ physical peak is so early and many girls retire in their teens. But most sports, including contact sports like hockey, don’t see players reaching full potential until after growth maturity. In most sports, not only is there no need for early specialization, it can actually prevent an athlete from reaching his or her full long-term athletic potential.
Three years ago, the Shoreline Sharks Youth Hockey Association in Southern Connecticut set out to change the misconception that hockey players, particularly girls, cannot successfully learn the game at an older age.
Like most clubs, Shoreline offered learn-to-play sessions for girls under age 12 through their Sand Sharks program. But club president Ed Rodham and co-founder Bill Greim noticed a pattern. As girls grew older and were exposed to other sports, they had fewer opportunities to develop skills that would take them to the travel-team level, which increased the dropout rate.
“These older girls would come to the [younger girls’] clinic because they wanted to learn how to play, but they felt socially out of place,” explained Rodham, a USA Hockey Level 5-certified coach. “It was emotionally deflating to be learning the same skill set as a 3- or 4-year-old.”
After initially testing the concept of a development clinic for older girls in 2015 and 2016, the first official Junior Sharks clinic for girls 11 and up was held the following season over a 20-week period at the DiLungo Ice Rink in East Haven. This year’s 11-and-older clinic began last month with 10 to 12 girls, and will run once a week each Sunday through February.
Rick Gedney, a USA Hockey Level 4-certified coach, conducts the clinic along with two other certified coaches. Using USA Hockey’s American Development Model, they introduce girls to skating, then teach forward stride, edges, crossovers and stopping. Players move on to puck-handling, passing and shooting. Small-area 3-on-3 games are added so girls can practice their newly-learned skills in a game-like setting. As a final touch, the coaches put all those concepts together with rules, decision-making, board play, and a full scrimmage with developing players from the Sharks travel teams. To ensure all the girls get plenty of puck touches and instruction, enrollment is capped at a 5:1 player-to-coach ratio.
“We wanted to have a program starting in September that all the high school coaches and captains would be able to send us their eighth- and ninth-graders, and get them experience, ice time and training, so by the time they hit high school tryouts and practices, they would have the confidence they needed to be part of a team and stay with the game,” Gedney said.
Gedney developed a passion for girls hockey in 1998, when his daughter Kate, a figure skater, was a freshman in high school. That same year, the U.S. Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team won gold at the Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. A new ice rink had just opened in Northford, Connecticut, but there were few opportunities for older boys and girls to play competitive hockey. Gedney agreed to start and coach a girls team at Daniel Hand High School, featuring Kate, a couple of hockey players with some experience and athletes from area field hockey, soccer and softball teams.
Gedney describes that first season as “magic.” Facing stiff competition with virtually no hockey experience, the team won its first game 1-0 on a shot from the point against an established travel team, and finished with a winning record. Four players eventually joined travel teams. Gedney had only one losing record in 14 seasons before becoming an instructor for the Sand Sharks in 2013. He later joined Shoreline’s board of directors, and his experience with the 1998 girls team played a vital role in laying the groundwork for the Junior Sharks clinic.
“Skating and hockey is enough of a challenge,” Gedney said. “Then add in teen peer pressure and coming in late to the game, so to speak. Think about the courage it takes for these kids given that most other players have been at it for a while. I admire that.”
The Sharks won USA Hockey’s Girls Tier II 16U national championship in 2018, and the Girls Tier II 14U national title in 2017. While Rodham is proud of the club’s success on the ice, he hopes other associations in Connecticut and around the country will use his program as a model and offer similar opportunities to older girls wishing to learn to play.
“We have no problem sharing our marketing initiatives,” Rodham said. “We’ll help anybody who wants to replicate or improve on what we’ve done. It’s good for the game of girls hockey to have the numbers go up.”
Programs like the Junior Sharks clinic prove that it’s never too late for girls to experience the thrill of learning to play hockey.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photo courtesy of Mags DePetris.