Michigan association has been honored as a USA Hockey model association

At one time, the Grand Traverse Hockey Association subscribed to the traditional way of teaching hockey to young kids: put them on a 200-foot sheet of ice, with a couple usually shooting and handling the puck, while others either stood around or tried to keep up. It was the only way most coaches knew how to develop players, and parents insisted their kids play on the same size rinks the professionals did.

Several years after USA Hockey began fully implementing the American Development Model, the board at Grand Traverse Hockey realized something had to change. Coaches were frustrated their players were not keeping up, while kids were becoming disengaged or dropping out altogether.

In 2014, the GTHA began taking steps to adopt ADM and its concepts, including better practice-to-game ratios, cross-ice practices, small area games and age-specific development. Nearly three years later, it became recognized by USA Hockey as the 20th program to achieve full model association status.

One of the key leaders of the movement was Jason Gollan, the club’s executive vice president at the time. According to Gollan, who left the board to start a food business but still maintains involvement with the program, and the transition is still evolving.

“The process continues today,” Gollan explained. “What it took was the board agreeing on this, and working their way through the system so each of the representatives in each of the divisions was on board and had the information. It takes a long time to change culture.”

Like many coaches, Fritz Heller was skeptical at first. But as he continued to learn about ADM and see the difference it was making in how many kids could be on the ice and shoot or handle the puck, he realized it made the most sense.

“A kid’s getting better if he’s moving all the time on the ice rather than standing in line for half a [practice] or more,” said Heller, who became GTHA’s Association Coaching Education (ACE) director six months ago. “I never grew up with it, and I played on successful teams. You start to realize, as a coach, none of that matters if you can’t skate, stick-handle, shoot and pass the puck.”

One of ADM’s main components is age-specific skill development. It’s not only practical, Gollan says, but cost-efficient.

“The easiest way to get a parent to buy in was to tell them it was going to cost them less money,” Gollan explained. “In my time, we were putting as many as 60 kids and 10 coaches on one sheet of ice. So, rather than having 15 kids paying for that ice time, now you have 60 paying, and it’s costing just a few dollars per family.”

The club has adopted the philosophy that no player should be left behind. In the years since fully adopting ADM, it has seen steady growth, particularly in the girls’ program. Before achieving full model status, there was one female team at the 19U level. That number has grown to five girl-specific teams, along with a number of girls playing on boys’ teams.

“It is my goal to make sure the GTHA is girls’ hockey-centered,” Heller explained.

The practice-to-game ratio ranges from 8:1 at the 8U level to 3:1 in 14U. Along with encouraging players to have fun, safety is a high priority. GTHA participates in the King Devick Recovery Acceleration Program, a computer-based oculomotor (movement of the eye) test that determines a player’s ability to play following any signs of a head injury. Kids are taught body checking techniques using wall battle stations, pads and other objects ranging from pucks to golf and tennis balls. In some cases, players go 1-on-1 and 2-on-2; other times, they alternate between not using sticks and turning them upside down.

Experienced coaches and former NHL players, including Kurt Froese, conduct clinics to teach proper body checking.

“We’re fortunate to have [them],” said Steve Peacock, GTHA’s current president. “They help when these kids start transitioning from pee wees into bantam, so they don’t go on the ice not knowing what is right and what is wrong.”

The club has a strong presence in the Grand Traverse community, located in northern Michigan. They participate in the National Charity Festival, and work with the local school system to promote Try Hockey for Free events. Like most clubs, GTHA has a strong volunteer base, from coaches and team managers to parents.

“It’s the commitment by these people that make our association off the charts,” Peacock said. “They put in tireless hours. When their kids are grown and gone, those are the finest moments they’ve had in raising their children.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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