Photo courtesy of Michigan State University / Matthew Mitchell
EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN — The Michigan State University hockey team spent a little extra time on the ice this past winter. Following practice on Mondays, the Spartans returned to the ice for a different kind of skate - one that took them back to where it all began.
"I don't think it's too much to ask for 45-minutes out of your week to take the time to change a kid's life," defenseman Travis Walsh, a junior from Haslett, said.
Walsh and his teammates, along with the Spartan coaching staff, hosted youth skaters from the Lansing area at Munn Ice Arena in a "learn to play" program. The young players ranged in age from 4 to 8-years old.
Nate Putek, hockey director at Suburban East Lansing, said the program is basic as it can be.
"Most of them can skate but now they're looking to move into hockey and this is the first step in doing so," Putek said. "It's more the skill level we're looking for than the age group."
While building skill is part of the learn to play sessions, Michigan State head coach Tom Anastos said the main goal is for the players to have fun and develop a passion for the game.
"You want them to just love the game, and if you love the game, you have a better chance to keep playing the game," Anastos said. "Right now, it's about enjoying the game, developing a passion for the game and I think when they see the passion that our guys have, it can serve as an inspiration to them to keep playing and wanting to achieve as much enjoyment out of the game as they can."
Anastos and MSU coaches and players helped the youngsters through a number of drills. MSU Director of Hockey Operations Phil Osaer said it's an opportunity for them to get up-close with current Spartan staff and players.
"We just hope they have fun and they have an opportunity to identify with our guys and get to know them a little bit," said Osaer, who played goalie for Ferris State from 1998-01. "If they get a chance to identify with our guys and coaches, then I think it's a win."
Playing on the same ice as the Michigan State skaters has resonated strongly with the clinic's participants. Putek said the kids have constantly talked about the experience in the days following the skate.
"I think this goes a long way just from the standpoint of the kids having this experience," said Putek, who is also a coach at Suburban East Lansing. "They just can't get the images out of their head."
The skates have also had an impact on the Michigan State program as well. Anastos said it's important for his players to make a connection with the next generation of hockey players in the area, most of who aspire to be future Spartans.
"It's really cool, especially for our guys because they make a real strong connection with the kids," Anastos said. "It's a way to give back to the game and it's a way to make a little impact on kids and inspire them. Our guys are really good at it."
Both Anastos and Osaer believe clinics like these can help grow the sport of hockey within the United States. USA Hockey total membership grew by more than 7,000 people in 2013-14, and Osaer said programs such as this could further increase interest in the game.
"Those of us who are so fortunate enough to be around the game at this level need to make sure we stay hands-on at all levels in order to stay connected and help as many players as possible enjoy the experience of playing our game," said Osaer, a former professional goalie who is heavily involved with USA Hockey.
In conjunction with USA Hockey and the NHL, the clinic's drills followed the American Development Model, which was implemented in January of 2009. As described by USA Hockey, the ADM "provides age-appropriate guidelines and curriculum to hockey associations across America" in an effort to better develop players in the country.
At the end of each session, MSU players and coaches set up a cross-ice scrimmage for the skaters. The ADM encourages cross-ice competition and drills in small spaces to increase skill for future levels of hockey.
A recent video released by USA Hockey used high-end analytics software on youth hockey players to show that cross-ice play results in twice as many puck touches and body contact puck battles and six-times as many shots per player.
Osaer and Anastos are proponents of the ADM, which is mandated in District 6 of the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association and covers areas such as Lansing, Ann Arbor, Jackson and Muskegon.
"I'm 100 percent in support of it," Osaer said. "What they're doing is they're playing hockey. If you equate it to other sports, how crazy would it be to teach a kid tennis on a full-size court?"
Osaer said the hardest part about hockey at a "learn to play" age is learning to skate and see the game, and the cross-ice play helped because it's more proportioned to their size.
"If you look at the game today, the game is played in small spaces," said Anastos, who played at Michigan State from 1981-85. "If you're playing it in big spaces (at a young age), you're really not learning the skill set that's necessary to have success in the game.
"This is a way to shrink the game to the size of its participants and create the perspective that you need so as you're growing up in the game you're learning the key fundamentals at the respective levels."
Combining youth clinics with the ADM can help improve both the skill level and passion of American hockey players, Anastos said.
"I think that the coordination between grassroots hockey and the highest levels allows people to understand how important those things are in progressing through the different levels of the game," he said. "USA Hockey has done a really good job of organizing and providing educational materials to people, but I think the more we can do at all of the different levels to support that, the clearer the message will be received."
The ADM's impact will be measured on success in the future, but for now, the smiles that shine from the ice tell the story.
"That's the wonderful part of this game," Anastos said.