Miracle on ice: Are rebels in hockey-mad Michigan the saviors of youth sports?
Posted by Dean Holden at July 30th, 2013
by Tom Farrey, 26 June 2013
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s July 8, Kids In Sports issue. Subscribe today!
IT’S FAIR TO wonder whether the future of all sports in America comes down to this very moment. At 6:30 one April morning in the Detroit suburbs, Joey Carpenter, 10, is pushing scrambled eggs around his plate. To his left, the countertop TV is tuned to the hockey world championships in Helsinki, where the U.S. men’s national team plays its opening game. Joey is mulling the options before him. Both of his teams, hockey and lacrosse, have games at the same time this morning. He is torn.
The new faces of hockey
He walks upstairs and shows me the room where he had slept fitfully beneath a Spider-Man blanket, next to a sock puppet and white tiger stuffed animal. He swipes a row of dark brown curls across his forehead and nods at the poster on the wall above his dresser. It’s of former Red Wing Marian Hossa, though his current favorite is left winger Henrik Zetterberg, another of the superskilled Euros who have propelled the team’s unmatched success over the past two decades. “I like what he does with passing,” Joey says.
Hockey is Joey’s first love. He has been the best player on his various teams since he started playing travel at age 5. Now he’s not the best, which is good. Three months ago, he joined Orchard Lake United, one of four USA Hockey-designated “Model Associations” that have excelled at developing well-rounded players. “I feel like I’m way better now,” he says. He imagines the path before him: a state ranking … high school glory … maybe an invite to join the U17s up the road in Ann Arbor at the National Team Development Program, finishing school for NHL-bound prospects. Around Hockeytown, as Detroit fancies itself, the dream can feel more like a progression.
Lacrosse here, by contrast, is more like a day in the park — or in this case, in the crash-landing zone of a county airport across town. That’s where Joey’s team is set to play this morning, on a patch of grass lined by parents so new to the sport and its rules that they aren’t sure how to yell at the ref. While hockey is a year-round adventure for kids as young as kindergartners, lacrosse is a spring-only affair in which the youngest rec teams in Joey’s town form in third grade. Fees are $160, or one-thirtieth of what the Carpenters will spend this year on hockey — which helps explain why lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation. For more than a decade, it’s been stealing kids from hockey, baseball and football.
Joey gathers his equipment. His father, Bill, tucks a silver thermos of coffee under one arm, and off they go in Dad’s Cadillac sedan.
What will it be today — lacrosse or hockey?
If it were up to the leaders of USA Hockey, the answer would be lacrosse.
UNTIL NOW youth sports have trended in one direction — the athletes getting younger, the parents more intense, the travel farther, the cost higher. To pick just one measure of the escalation, Bill Carpenter, 46, drops more in one month on Joey’s puck pursuits — $400 with gear, gas and the occasional hotel room — than he estimates his parents spent on sports during his entire childhood. So imagine the shock within hockey, within youth sports in general, as the insurrectionists at USA Hockey pursue an agenda that to some looks like unilateral disarmament. Unlike governing bodies in the other major sports, USA Hockey — the organization in charge of developing the national and Olympic teams — has influence over most youth leagues. Responding to rising concerns about pediatric concussions, the leadership in 2011 banned bodychecking at the peewee (12U) level. To curb the creation of elite superteams populated largely by kids from families who can afford travel hockey, they stopped holding a peewee national championship. Finally, they began discouraging younger players from full-ice games and encouraging them to play other sports.
The astonishing shift was triggered when USA Hockey officials analyzed the membership rolls and saw that children introduced to the game weren’t sticking with it. By age 9, 43 percent had quit. “Kids vote with their feet,” says Ken Martel, USA Hockey’s leader on youth reforms. “If they are not having fun and enjoying what they do, they walk away from our sport.” USA Hockey made its many countercultural decisions in order to grow the sport — or in the case of metro Detroit, where barely half as many kids play as a decade ago, to stem the losses. Counterintuitively, the goal was also to produce more American superstars.
BOB MANCINI is USA Hockey’s man in Michigan. From 1996 to 2000, he helped build the National Team Development Program into what would become the most successful hockey training center in the world, as evidenced by the rows of youth world championship banners that line the walls of the rink in Ann Arbor. By 2009 he was also the father of a first-grader who liked hockey but wasn’t getting age-appropriate coaching. So when Martel called on Mancini to make hockey appealing to Michigan’s best young athletes again, he took the challenge personally. “It was, how do you take the next step?” Mancini says. “I realized it’s not enough to train the top 22 teenagers. We need to start at the 8-and-under level.”
In hockey-mad Michigan, the instinct among youth coaches, who are often untrained volunteers, is to put kids in uniform and load them up with games. But during games, Mancini notes, there’s only one puck on the ice, and kids get far fewer touches than they would during a well-designed practice.
Martel’s solution, which Mancini embraced, was the American Development Model (ADM), a program that emphasizes fundamentals and fun, rather than games, at younger levels. ADM recognizes, as pediatricians do, that the needs and characteristics of a 7-year-old — physically, cognitively, emotionally — are not the same as a 17-year-old’s. Through age 12, ADM insists on a 3-1 practice-to-game ratio to take full advantage of what neuroscientists call the motor-skills window, when technique with a puck (or ball) is grooved into memory.
During Joey’s busy practices at Orchard Lake, the ice is segregated into six stations, each run by a coach who works with a rotating group of players on a skill — say, puck handling or two-on-one. Then the kids deploy the new skills in small-sided games during which positioning and skating fast are less important than winning puck battles, retaining control and passing. “We have a generation of hockey players who know where to stand on the ice but don’t know how to play,” Mancini says.
The point is to allow Americans to develop more like kids in Sweden’s renowned youth system, which has produced stars such as Joey’s hero, Zetterberg. During a Red Wings playoff game against Anaheim at Joe Louis Arena, a defender is all over Detroit’s captain as he glides down the ice, but with a blink-of-the-eye hand jive, Zetterberg nimbly moves the puck from one side of his body to the other. “The Swedes don’t send over fourth-line NHLers,” says Mancini, watching from the stands. “They send over stars. And it starts at the youngest levels.” ADM is inspired in part by this model. In Sweden, kids don’t play full-ice games until age 10 or play on all-star travel teams until after most of them have hit puberty.
The patience has its rewards. Sweden’s national team won Olympic gold in 2006 and the world championship in May, not bad for a country with just 53,334 youth players (the U.S. has 305,453, Canada 455,806). The standard-bearer is Swedish league champion Skelleftea (population: 32,775), a town that is half the size of Joey’s suburb, Waterford Township. Three current NHL players hail from Skelleftea, along with 21 members of Sweden’s U17, U18 and U19 teams. All of them emerged from a club that cuts no kids until age 17 and plays only six months a year.
The chiefs running USA Hockey know all about Skelleftea. Every member of the U17 and U18 national teams in Ann Arbor played multiple sports growing up. It will clearly take time for the multisport message to trickle down. At a national ADM meeting, one of Mancini’s fellow regional directors lamented how his 15-year-old son’s team had a cookout where no kid knew how to throw a football — because all they had done was chase a black disc. “At the youngest ages, we shouldn’t try to develop hockey players,” Mancini says. “We should develop athletes who love hockey.”
Outside organizations are closely watching the ADM experiment. In June the U.S. Olympic Committee began talking with its top governing bodies about adopting new best practices. USA Swimming and U.S. Tennis Association officials support kids playing other sports to reduce burnout and overuse injuries. In May Canada banned bodychecking at the peewee level, the cultural equivalent of Texas football banning tackling through age 12. Safety and popularity have become levers for change. “Deep down, most parents know something is wrong,” Mancini says. “They come up and say things like, ‘My older son quit hockey.’ They’re looking for something better.”
THE ARENA at St. Clair Shores, a working-class community known for its youth hockey, is one of the places where Mancini is viewed with suspicion. Entering on a bright spring day, he passes photos of teams that have won state titles going back a generation. Since USA Hockey began rolling out ADM to its affiliates in 2009, the St. Clair Shores association has pushed back on most of the suggested reforms.
“This is America,” says Paul Doppke, president of the association. “People don’t want to be told what they can’t do with their kids. They should get rid of the USA in USA Hockey.”
The latest beef is over cross-ice hockey, in which boards are laid across the ice to create playing spaces for two four-on-four games plus an area in the middle for drills. USA Hockey’s Michigan sanctioning body introduced cross-ice two years at the mites (8U) level, where it was then ignored by 28 percent of local associations, including St. Clair Shores. Starting in September, a new statewide rule will mandate its use for half the season.
The reluctance to abide USA Hockey is supported by dads like Sal Danis, an electrical contractor who is perched on the top row of the rink as his 6-year-old son, Jackson, plays a full-ice tournament game. “My son also plays baseball,” he says. “Moving to cross-ice would be like saying, Okay, we’re putting you back down in T-ball. And we’ll take the umpire away.”
His son weighs 50 pounds and plays second base in a machine-pitch league. I ask Sal about the size of his field. Is it the same as Comerica Park, where the Tigers play? “Hockey’s just different,” he says, flashing a sheepish grin.
Not to Mancini, who is watching the game through the glass at one end of the rink. He sees lots of skating in a straight line, easily stolen pucks leading to long breakaways, the weakest kids trailing like geese heading south for the winter. “People think this looks like the NHL game, but it doesn’t,” he says. “That game is about handling the puck and stopping and starting in small areas.” Only two kids can use both sides of their sticks. Yet some of these 8-year-olds already play up to 60 games a year.
Twenty-eight teams from Michigan and Ohio paid $850 each to register for the tournament at St. Clair Shores. Kids in Michigan are allowed to play for any town in their part of the state, and free agency comes annually, so the coaches who win are those who best aggregate talent and build superteams. Teams that bypass tourneys like this risk having their stars poached by those that travel year-round.
Tournament director Jamie Ziskie knows the hazards of the system. Last year he had his own son skate with Orchard Lake, where he was introduced to ADM. “I’m a proponent,” he says. But committing his son, one of the state’s top 9-year-olds, to ADM felt like too much of a risk. Ziskie, who runs events for extra income, set up his tournament as a full-ice affair. “That’s what people want,” he says, shrugging. “If I do a cross-ice tournament, it’s not going to sell.”
Lying in wait is the ever-opportunistic Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the youth sports organization known primarily for its basketball and track programs. The AAU has little history in hockey, but it is positioning itself as the laissez-faire alternative to USA Hockey’s affiliates. AAU Hockey in Michigan is run by Keith Klook, a retired postal worker who predicts mass defections when he offers more intense parents what they want: full-ice games for mites and no ban on bodychecking at the peewee level. “The growth of AAU Hockey is related to cross-ice mandates,” he says.
SINCE 2010 the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association has received almost 300 reports of violence and breaches of its code of conduct. A sampling: Coach smacks player. Skate blade used as weapon. “Likely armed” police officer (dad) climbs glass, taunts coach and refs. “But I’ve never seen or heard of a report from a cross-ice game,” says MAHA president George Atkinson. Parents and coaches are less caught up in the results of cross-ice games, which are more about development than competition.
With cross-ice and other reforms, USA Hockey essentially aims to reintroduce sanity into the game so it attracts more athletes and makes them want to stick around long enough to become great. Mancini draws hope from the early results at Grosse Pointe, the next town over from St. Clair Shores. Since its association embraced cross-ice in 2011, enrollment among kids 8 and under has doubled to 120. With rising numbers have come more coaches, an extra $40,000 in sponsorship revenue and a palpable buzz, as cross-ice allows more players to share the ice.
Martel cites other success stories he associates with ADM: retention rates of close to 90 percent in Grand Rapids and Colorado Springs, sites of two other Model Associations like Orchard Lake United; a national attrition rate down to 40 percent; and hockey’s total core participants up by 6.3 percent since 2010, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. That makes hockey one of the few team sports with participation gains of late, along with lacrosse.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that Joey Carpenter likes both. Today there’s no pressure from his hockey coach to join him for a game. In ADM, hockey is closer to a half-year sport. So at 7:30 a.m. sharp, father and son are at the field. Bill is fine with Joey’s decision; it’s lacrosse season. “I love lacrosse,” he tells me. “I don’t know anything about the sport, so I can just watch.” The game still belongs to kids.
There’s just one snag. The fields are empty. Bill looks at his watch, then his smartphone. Oops. Game starts at 10.
That’s what he gets for not paying close attention to Joey’s other, more casual, sport. But it turns out that’s not all he gets. He sets down his coffee and pulls lacrosse sticks from the trunk. Father and son walk onto the grass next to the parking lot and begin playing catch, just the two of them, for the first time in months.
“You pretty much haven’t caught a ball yet,” Joey says teasingly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bill replies, throwing one back, both of them letting it go.