A decade ago, hockey leaders in western Michigan changed course.
Convinced that higher cost didn’t always equal higher return, they hatched a plan to give kids the biggest bang for their parents’ buck. It wouldn’t be about shouldering fancy bags or chasing mythic exposure. Instead, they’d pour everything into player development and measure success by the kids’ athletic progress.
“We expected about 30 players at first, but we ended up with 80,” said Joel Breazeale, a master-level Michigan CEP instructor who helped launch the program. “I asked the coaches, ‘How are we going to do this with all these kids?’”
John Alonso had a plan.
“We’ll just split the ice into stations and make it happen,” he said.
A second-generation hockey man from Detroit, Breazeale didn’t need any convincing. He wanted the best development experience and skill-focused stations guaranteed it.
“(USA Hockey American Development Model technical director) Ken Martel came to Marquette for a Level 4 clinic and he was all jacked up about the small-ice games and cross-ice hockey he’d seen in Finland,” said Breazeale. “I was fascinated by it. And I had a 4-year-old son, so it was easy to see the benefits. It just made so much sense, how it teaches the instinctive play, the competitiveness.”
With its focus on skill development, affordability and fun, the program’s first season was a success. When the second season began at Kentwood Ice Arena, enrollment swelled to 110 kids. Soon Breazeale and his fellow coaches were running cross-ice jamborees to complement the station-based practices. Another rink, the Georgetown Ice Center, eventually hired Breazeale to rebuild its youth program and he brought his methodology with him. Dedicated coaches and volunteers embraced it, and in three seasons, the program grew from 80 players to 300. They also started winning, highlighted by a mite state championship in 2009.
Progressing through the ranks with his sons, and curious to see how small-area hockey would translate with older players, Breazeale then coached a Grand Valley midget team to a JV Tier I championship before taking over as bench boss at Grandville High School.
“Our practices looked like a street fight,” said Breazeale. “No flow drills, no breakouts. Just high-tempo competitive situations, small-area games and individual skill development.”
It was a new look that transformed the program. In 2011, the Bulldogs embarked on a string of four region championships in five seasons including an appearance in Michigan’s Division 1 state semifinals in 2014 and a hard-fought runner-up finish in the 2015 MHSAA Division 1 state championship. Along the way, a prep team comprised of players developed entirely in Western Michigan’s ADM-esque cradle – many of whom were Bulldogs – outscored opponents 22-11 en route to the Meijer State Games of Michigan championship in 2014.
“It’s been a great journey,” said Breazeale, who saluted a number of outstanding coaches alongside him, not the least of which, his staff at Grandville: Alonso, Rob Pratt and Don Underwood.
“There’s something to what we’re doing, and it’s not just me,” he said. “Of our boys at Grandville this season, we had five all-state players and four of them were house-hockey players until bantams. Our goaltender was a soccer player until just 5 seasons ago. A third of our team’s players are three-sport varsity athletes. But we started with this group when they were 4 or 5 years old, putting every dollar into development, not the other stuff. We did our best not to put their parents in a financial bind. And the success speaks for itself. Now some of these boys have a future in the sport beyond high school, and it’ll continue, because every program in western Michigan is doing this now.”
As for Breazeale, he has a future in the sport beyond high school, too. This fall, he’ll return to his roots, taking the reins of a 10U program and grooming another generation of talent.
“I can’t wait to experience it all over again,” he said.