In the vast ocean of youth hockey, the best way for some of the youngest fish to learn is not by swimming in a single-file, straight line, but by spreading their fins and doing a little of everything.
And it's not opinion. It’s science.
"Chaos can be fun," said Dave Starman, masters-level instructor for USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program and college hockey scout for the Montreal Canadiens.
Less Structure, More Development
NHL practices can be military-like in precision. When it comes to practices for younger players, less – in terms of structure – can be more.
"It's important, especially at the younger level, because if they're not moving around, they don't have the ability to teach themselves to do a lot of things," Starman said. "I can stand there and tell a kid to move his foot one way, or move his foot another way, but when that kid goes out there and starts moving his feet around, and falls down, and gets up, all that trial-and-error just makes you a better player because you're teaching yourself a lot of stuff."
More than Cross-Ice
That's where USA Hockey’s American Development Model comes in, a program Starman said is tailor-made to be the guiding principle of an 8U practice.
"Number one is, people need to realize that the ADM is more than just cross-ice playing," Starman said. "The beauty of the ADM is that it's laid out so clearly, and part two of it is it's so science-based.
"What you're reading is not hypothesis; what you're reading is fact."
Keeping Kids Engaged
Keeping things fresh and lively, Starman said, are keys to maximizing what a young player is getting out of a practice.
Unconventional drills and games can be the key to helping harness different skills a hockey player needs to be successful.
"For 8Us, look at sharks and minnows," Starman said. "Sharks and minnows is chaos, but the beauty of sharks and minnows for our little kids is they can skate from one side of the rink to the other in any pattern they want to.
"They're not getting told, 'Go in a straight line, and make a left,' or, 'Make two circles, and take a shot.' They're figuring out where to go, they're finding open space, and they're figuring out a way to avoid being tagged. They're keeping their head up, conscious of where the danger is."
No Standing Around
At such a young age, and still firmly in developmental mode, Starman said keeping hockey enjoyable and a fun game is also paramount.
"There's no sport for taking out the garbage, because kids don't want to do it," Starman said. "For hockey, it's kind of the same thing. If you make it something they have to go to, or make it something that's not enjoyable, they're not going to play."
That's precisely where the ADM comes in.
"The one thing the ADM has done is allow both coaches and players to have a little more fun because of the fact that you're in more small-area games, you're in more stations, your compete level is higher, your ability to get more kids moving at the same time (is higher), and I'm talking even up to the bantams," Starman said. "The best way to make a kid not want to play is to make him or her stand around and watch others play. With what we're doing right now, everybody is in motion; there's not a lot of standing around."
Teach a Kid to Fish
It can create chaos, like Starman said, but a little chaos in the ocean could be just what the fishes need.
"You know the expression 'You give a man a fish, he can eat for a night, but you teach him to fish, he can eat forever?'" Starman said. "A lot of that is true when you get into unstructured situations in their small areas because they're teaching themselves.
"When you teach yourself something, you tend to remember it a lot longer than being taught something that either, one, you may not understand right away, or two, you're not in the mental frame of mind to learn.
"That's one of the major reasons why we've made a lot of strides with our younger players. They're having more fun because they're picking a lot of things up through their own play and competition."
Nobody ever said that officiating—especially officiating ice hockey—was easy. Rule knowledge, communication skills, fitness, skating and a natural presence are just some of the abilities necessary to be a successful official. Some possess more of these skills, and those are the officials who advance to higher levels. But regardless of the level achieved or the skill set the official possesses, the one quality that should be equal among every official is a high level of integrity.
The USA Hockey national office staff members, along with our volunteer referees-in-chief and local supervisors, have heard growing concerns over a decreasing level of personal pride among our youth hockey officials. It’s sometimes said that no one is holding them accountable. A portion of this perception is likely a typical “blame-the-officials” mentality, but some anecdotal evidence suggests there is also some merit to this concern. That’s alarming to USA Hockey, as it affects the credibility of our entire program, along with every member it represents. The blunt truth is this: Even one official who isn’t on the up and up can and will damage the credibility of all officials who take pride in the integrity of their work.
Whether we like it or not, officials are under a microscope, and by the nature of the business, are held to a very high standard. When we signed up for this officiating gig, we committed ourselves to represent the game of hockey, USA Hockey, our local group of officials and ourselves as people of integrity who accept the responsibility and guardianship of enforcing the rules in a fair and consistent manner. Most importantly, we must remember that the game is bigger than all of us and that the game itself is what we serve. Those who lose sight of that not only compromise the competitive fairness of the games, they also make life more difficult for all of the officials by damaging the credibility of the officiating community.
The concerns that come forward range from an overall lack of effort to continued misapplication of the rules to a blatant targeting of an individual player/coach in abuse of power situations. Granted, calls and emails received are generally taken with a grain of salt, but after some further investigation, there are many cases where the complaints have merit. We expect players and coaches to be responsible for the equipment they wear, for their actions on the ice and for upholding sportsmanlike behavior at all times. The officiating community must also be held accountable for those areas that put into question the professionalism and the integrity of our team.
No one has ever demanded perfection from our officials, nor does USA Hockey place that expectation on us. But we do expect our officials to know the rules, give 100 percent effort on the ice, regardless as to the level of the game, and maintain a level of integrity that can never be questioned.
Officials should hold themselves accountable in these areas and acknowledge when a mistake is made, learn from it and do what is necessary to make sure the same mistake does not happen again. At the same time, local officiating leadership has to lead by example and set the tone for accountability and, unfortunately, failure at this level is what does the most damage to the game and our credibility.
When the officials that everyone is supposed to look up to can’t meet these expectations, it trickles down and minimizes the potential for success for any official in that area. It is here where the affiliates, local supervisors of officials and local leagues must take a vested interest in the success of the game and officiating by establishing clear expectations and then holding those officials who refuse to meet those expectations accountable for their actions. This can be done through continuing education, game fee fines or possibly even suspension.
Fortunately, these types of officials are few and far between, but they do exist and to simply stick our heads in the sand and not address the concern is irresponsible. Each of us, as officials, has an obligation to behave in a professional manner at all times and take our role seriously. We made a commitment to approach each game with the understanding that the game is about the players, and we should be invisible until the players require us to appear as a result of infractions that occur. Respect is a two-way street and simply putting on the sweater with the USA Hockey crest suggests respect is warranted, but it must be supported by your actions.
USA Hockey has an obligation to create a non-threatening environment that promotes respect for officials and an opportunity for officials to improve through education and evaluation. USA Hockey does this through playing rules, points of emphasis, zero-tolerance policies and comprehensive education programs for officials, coaches, parents and players.
In return, the game expects USA Hockey officiating members to bring a professional image to every contest and an attitude that creates a positive environment and makes the game better. We realize everyone makes mistakes – it’s part of the game. However, laziness or unprofessional behavior is unacceptable and being creative in rule enforcement and not holding players/coaches accountable for infractions will only make the next team of officials’ jobs much more difficult and set them up for failure.
The reality is that the game official must always hold themselves to the highest level of integrity and behavior both on and off the ice. That is the expectation we are required to meet.
As we finish off the 2016-17 season, ask yourself if you are willing to meet that expectation and if you have been doing so throughout the season. If the answer is no, the off-season would provide a great opportunity to reflect on whether officiating is worth continuing for you.
Many of us imagine what goes on in a locker room before a National Hockey League game. The strategic talk, the rituals with putting on equipment, the catching up with league business. It’s the place where some of the best athletes prepare for the physical, mental and emotional battle of a game. In some cases, a team has the advantage of home turf. In other cases, a team has the challenge of unfamiliar ice. However, in yet another case, a team has the challenge of never having a home game.
NHL officials are sometimes acknowledged as the third team on the ice. While they never worry about wins or line-changes, they still use their pre-game time to prepare physically and mentally. It’s the time when they leave their personal to-do lists and family matters behind and work together to make sure each member of the team is ready to get into position, execute sharp judgment and support each other when a partner gets blocked out from play.
So how do the officials prepare? Twenty-six grassroots USA Hockey officials will find out this month during USA Hockey’s 10th annual Hockey Week Across America. During Hockey Week, the entire country will celebrate the success, passion and everything great about the American hockey community. This includes the Meet the NHL Officials program.
We connected with BJ Ringrose, coordinator of the USA Hockey Officiating Program, for a Q-and-A about the Meet the NHL Officials initiative.
USA Hockey: What exactly is the Meet the NHL Officials program?
BJ Ringrose: This program offers the opportunity for young, grassroots USA Hockey officials to meet NHL officials before a game in their dressing room, and then stick around to watch them work.
USA Hockey: That sounds like a great opportunity for these kids.
Ringrose: Absolutely. Officials are no different from players. They develop heroes and mentors among the referees at the higher levels of the game. They watch an NHL, NCAA or USHL game and think, “I want to be that guy!” The Hockey Weekend program gives them a chance to meet their heroes in a familiar informal setting and ask the NHL officials questions about their paths to success and how to advance.
USA Hockey: Have you ever received any feedback from the NHL officials about these meetings?
Ringrose: We correspond a lot with the NHL and NHL Officials Association leading up to Hockey Weekend and we usually get a quick note from some of the officials after the meeting thanking us for the opportunity, and expressing how great the kids are. For the NHL officials, this meeting reminds them of the grassroots levels they developed their craft in.
The NHL officials have shown a lot of support for this program and we appreciate everything the league and officials do to make this opportunity happen.
USA Hockey: So the program is basically a short meeting with the officials and then a free ticket to the game. Is there anything else
Ringrose: In addition to the league and officials, the various host NHL teams have really embraced this program. A lot of them are expanding the program to include tours of the arena, media room and video replay booth. Others are asking the kids to bring their skates and uniform and allowing them to participate in the pre-game skate and anthem.
USA Hockey: So these young officials are allowed to stand with their heroes at center ice during the National Anthem in front of thousands of fans?
Ringrose: Yes, one referee even brought the kids over to the home-team bench for a quick pre-game word with the coach. The head coach shook hands with them; that was fun to watch.
USA Hockey: It’s amazing how much access to an NHL game these kids get to experience.
Ringrose: It’s potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build serious dedication to officiating in these young referees. While the mentoring and other features of these events are great, the underlying goal is to develop a lifetime official who will give back to the USA Hockey game regardless of what level he or she reaches.
USA Hockey: OK, we’re sold. How do people get a chance to participate?
Ringrose: This year we introduced an online nomination system that allowed parents, officials, assignors, supervisors or anyone to nominate a young grassroots official for this opportunity. In the past, the participants were selected by the local USA Hockey officiating supervisors in the NHL markets. However, this online nomination system has opened up the opportunity for more kids to be considered.
USA Hockey: So what happens to the nominations?
Ringrose: They are forwarded to the district referees-in-chief of the respective officials. The district RIC’s work with their support staff to learn more about the kids and decide who would benefit most from the opportunity. They consider age, experience, attitude, professionalism and officiating goals. Once they identify the participants, they pass me the names and I begin coordinating with the league and teams.
The nomination system for 2018 Hockey Weekend Across America will re-open in October 2017. Please CLICK HERE for more information.