Programs are designed to boost player participation and help associations run more efficiently
USA Hockey has always been about growing the game.
Attracting more youth players every year is always a major goal. And USA Hockey continues to play a significant role in helping member hockey associations do that around the country.
USA Hockey’s Andy Gibson, coordinator of program services, had the opportunity to speak at Massachusetts Hockey’s annual Association Leadership Conference in early May to discuss ways the association can continue moving in the right direction.
“It’s really important (to attend these events) because I don’t want to say there’s misinformation out there, but it helps to have a subject matter expert come in — somebody who knows the full breadth of USA Hockey’s programs and initiatives,” Gibson said. “A lot of these associations are made up of pure volunteers; people who may not have access to this information and don’t know everything that’s available to them and their association.”
Gibson detailed two major initiatives USA Hockey is promoting with its associations: the 2 and 2 Challenge and Club Excellence.
“I always tell people there’s no silver bullet when it comes to growing youth hockey or youth sports in general,” Gibson said, but USA Hockey has had success with the 2 and 2 Challenge, which tries to increase participation in the ages 4-to-8 group, as a blueprint for growth. It uses the goal of acquiring two new players and retaining two additional players from the previous season’s total in the 8-and-under category.
“It’s a nationwide initiative and it’s the foundation of what we’ve seen as the best practices for our associations across the country,” Gibson said. “The 2 and 2 Challenge encompasses all of that feedback we’ve received from our associations about what really works for them in their local areas, packaged to make a actionable blueprint for growth nationwide.”
There are three specific areas USA Hockey zooms in on with the 2 and 2 Challenge: retention, acquisition and conversion.
Retention is the welcome back piece — inviting players to return for the upcoming season. For any 8-and-under player who registered last year, USA Hockey invites them back through an email campaign and a special phone call.
USA Hockey works with every American NHL club to organize a 30-second sound bite from one player on every team. Then USA Hockey pushes those calls out to all 8-and-under players who haven’t registered for the season.
“It’s kind of a neat reminder,” Gibson said. “It’s a subtle touch and kind of a hometown thing … that’s a really successful campaign just to get people to start thinking about hockey and reminding them that it’s time to register.”
USA Hockey also provides a list to each association containing the players who haven’t registered yet for an upcoming season. The associations are encouraged to contact those players. USA Hockey also provides a manual on how to handle those conversations with the players’ parents.
The acquisition portion of the 2 and 2 Challenge includes the Try Hockey for Free days. This upcoming season’s national dates are Nov. 10 and Feb. 23. The spring date actually falls on the Saturday of Hockey Week Across America, Gibson noted.
Conversion is the final component of the 2 and 2 Challenge. These are transitions programs, such as Learn to Skate USA and Learn to Play, that take place not long after Try Hockey for Free days. USA Hockey provides its associations with templates for on-ice curriculum for the events.
One of the biggest initiative changes this year from USA Hockey is it will support associations that want to conduct Try Hockey for Free on any date during the year, rather than only on the nationally designated THFF Days.
“We’re trying to be a little more flexible and open that door so people can use the tools and resources to hopefully keep that at the forefront of their minds during the course of the season as opposed to just two days out of the year,” Gibson said.
Massachusetts Hockey Program Support Coordinator Mike DiOrio found the 2 and 2 Challenge information Gibson provided at the leadership conference invaluable to the association.
“He gave a printout of where their programs were last year when it comes to the 8-and-under section — boys and girls,” DiOrio said. “So, when they’re having these conversations and they have exact numbers for how they’re performing in the past three years, it really hits home. It also shows them where they’ve done well and what they need to work on. It’s not just, ‘Here are some great ideas. I hope you like them.’”
Gibson also spoke to Massachusetts Hockey about Club Excellence. Launched three years ago, it’s a tool USA Hockey hopes every member association will utilize.
Club Excellence is an online resource and blueprint to help youth hockey boards of directors and associations govern themselves; it’s based on a non-profit governance model.
The tool came about in a roundabout fashion. Gibson said USA Hockey looked at its robust support and education tools for coaches and officials and decided to create something on a similar level for associations.
“Our volunteers are really the lifeblood of what we do and stand for at USA Hockey, and we wanted to find a great way to support their efforts,” Gibson said. “So, when it comes to governing a board and being a hockey administrator within your local hockey association, we wanted to create more resources to help them. Club Excellence was born out of that need.”
Once registered, association officials are able to log onto an online portal that offers outlines of key positions within a non-profit board and gives duties and responsibilities of what’s expected in each position.
“In my opinion, the greatest tool, the greatest asset of Club Excellence, is it gives you tasks,” Gibson said. “It’s actionable. So, it breaks down what you need to be doing in your position in terms of tasks by month.”
Another big change this year is that, through Club Excellence, associations can create new positions specific to their association and create tasks tailored to them.
“The idea is to help attract and retain more volunteers and give them tools to be successful,” Gibson said.
Gibson is expecting Club Excellence to grow in the next year as more associations latch onto the tool. Adding the ability to customize positions with an association has been a major addition.
The members from Massachusetts Hockey who heard Gibson speak at the conference found out how much USA Hockey is backing its associations. DiOrio said with USA Hockey’s support, the individual organizations should flourish.
“It’s one of those things that gives us the motivation to continue to help because we know we have that support system,” DiOrio said. “It also helps us to know that we’re going in the right direction, because the stuff that they’re researching, the money that they’re putting into creating actionable things is helping our associations grow.”
Summer is a great time for hockey players of any age to build strength, sharpen their skills and improve overall athleticism. For young skaters, it’s also important to mix things up and have fun.
A young athlete doesn’t have to play more hockey to get better at hockey, says Matt Cunningham, former Minnesota State Maverick and USA Hockey Level 4-certified coach and instructor.
“Our youth sports culture pushes the myth that not participating in hockey year-round will lead an athlete to 'fall behind' his or her peers,” said Cunningham. “At the younger ages our focus should be on developing well-rounded athletes who have a solid base of general athletic skills. We sometimes don't connect the dots among activities that don't seem to have similarities to hockey. Mountain biking is an example. It requires body control while building the legs and lungs – both big parts of hockey.”
Cunningham, who has experience in holistic health coaching and has demonstrated the benefits of core power yoga for athletes, suggests there are many out-of-the-box activities kids can try during the offseason that may make them better hockey players down the road.
Here are some examples, described by Cunningham:
Tennis – Tennis has many crossover benefits to hockey, including agility and coordination and short-burst, multi-directional speed. You are constantly stopping and starting. Tennis requires lots of power, both forehand and backhand.
Stand-Up Paddleboarding – It might look easy but it requires significant core strength. As you have to maintain an athletic stance on a board (feet shoulder-width apart, knees bent, etc.) your core and quads are engaged throughout. Balance is obviously paramount. Plus, you are outside and on the water, so it’s fun, too.
Skateboarding – (Skateboarding requires) balance, agility and coordination. Skateboarding also requires lots of body control and general athleticism. If you go to a skateboard park, you see lots of peer coaching and mimicry along with little to no structured coaching (from adults). It's as creative as sport gets. The flip side, of course, is the risk involved, so be smart, and wear protective equipment – especially if you’re a beginner.
Floorball – Extremely popular in parts of Europe (including Sweden and Finland), it's been gaining traction in North America. (Floorball incorporates) similar skills and concepts to ice hockey but there is no body contact, other than incidental. It's a great way for players to develop creativity and deception skills. Floorball has similar game concepts to hockey, such as creating 2-on-1s or 3-on-2s and creating time and space. Floorball also involves significant decision-making, situational awareness, read-and-react scenarios and more.
Yoga – Yoga has become a huge part of my life and it started strictly as a physical practice, to rehab some old injuries. The physical benefits range from general strength and flexibility to using those muscles in different ways. I also find it extremely beneficial for my posture, especially considering how much time we spend sitting and staring at screens. Yoga is another area where the athlete must learn to focus on his or her own practice while channeling thoughts and energy in a positive way (often easier said than done).
Other fun, “different” summer activities that can boost athleticism away from the rink include canoeing or kayaking, ultimate Frisbee, obstacle courses and even unstructured “free play” activities such as tag.
“Something as simple as tag has numerous benefits,” said Cunningham. “It can be played anywhere and requires no equipment. Think of all the skills that translate to hockey such as stopping and starting, short-burst speed in multiple directions, agility and body control. Another huge benefit is the deception involved in the game. Plus it's fun and competitive in an unstructured environment.”
For young hockey players who may be apprehensive to try something new, Cunningham offers some words of advice:
“Anyone who has tried to play a new sport or develop a new skill will have to develop frustration tolerance,” he said. “I speak from experience as someone who got into triathlon as an adult. It can be incredibly frustrating to fail repeatedly and struggle with something different and new. But it’s important to keep in mind the pursuit of progress, not perfection.”