Duluth is located in arguably the most hockey-loving part (northern) of the most hockey-loving state (Minnesota) in the country. So when the city on the shores of Lake Superior underwent a major youth hockey shift earlier this decade, people noticed.
The change? In its youth hockey system, Duluth eliminated its traveling “A” team at the 10U level and kept all 10U players in-house at the “B” level.
The reasoning? Kids were being divided into upper- and lower-tiered too early, and it was impacting retention in a negative way. Since the change? Numbers are up and – perhaps just as importantly – some order has been restored.
What does that mean? Roger Grillo, a regional manager for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, says Duluth has shown the rest of the country a model that – even if it isn’t followed directly – provides a blueprint for development at 10U.
“I think it’s fantastic. It’s certainly courageous,” Grillo said of Duluth’s decision. “That horse left the barn years ago, and to put it back in is not so easy. It takes strong leadership and conviction. I give them a ton of credit for doing it.”
Emphasize development and fun
The thing Grillo likes most about Duluth’s model is that it re-emphasizes some of the core edicts of the ADM, including skill development, creativity and fun at the 10U level.
That doesn’t mean every association should do away with the A-B model, but it does mean that within existing structures it is helpful to remember the core values that should be taught at that level.
“You still want a place where a kid who hasn’t been on the ice for four years already can join, be a part of it and still have a chance to get better. You can’t stick a kid in the deep end who has never been swimming before,” Grillo said. “For us in USA Hockey, it’s all about proper practice-to-game ratios, length of season, quality of practice, station-based practice and a focus on individual skill development rather than the scoreboard at a young age.”
The kids that need more seasoning will improve with better competition, and those ahead of the curve will benefit from more puck touches and confidence.
“At younger ages, it’s really important to focus on puck touches, repetitions, passion, confidence, having fun and building a base with a positive environment that encourages creativity and embraces failure. Let kids reach their full potential,” Grillo said. “If I’m looking with my development hat on, I want skaters to score a bunch of goals and own the puck, to make plays, to not just be on the outside looking in. And on the goaltending side, I want them seeing lots of shots and feeling engaged.”
Keeping kids together at 10U also keeps them from being mislabeled at a young age.
“In reality, with kids in an A-B structure, the As aren’t necessarily the best players – they’re the best skaters – currently,” Grillo said. “They’re on a big sheet of ice and can skate faster. That doesn’t mean they’re better.”
Once kids get placed in A or B, they tend to stay along that track – creating funnels that might not accurately reflect their true abilities as they mature. In some places, B players don’t get access to the club’s best coaches, a condition that impedes their development and becomes a vicious circle of sorts.
“To not segregate kids or label kids as strongest or weakest is fantastic, especially at that 10U age classification,” Grillo said. “Keeping them all together, with all the best coaches and development opportunities, does the greatest good for everyone.”
Cut down on travel
Another benefit of Duluth’s in-house model, Grillo says, is that it cuts down on travel. Duluth is about two hours north of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, home to dozens of associations.
“I have to imagine for people in Duluth the draw to go down south is a huge issue. But at a younger age, you don’t need to do that,” Grillo said. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to play against so-called better competition to get better. It’s true, but not necessarily at 10U. That doesn’t really kick in until 13 or 14.”
Develop happens on the rink, not on the road. Instead of spending hours every weekend in the car, kids should be on the ice – either playing within their own in-house associations or having unstructured ice time crucial to all aspects of development.
Create a culture
Not everyone can do what Duluth did, but the main takeaway is that the positive culture created by Duluth’s decision can be replicated within different associations regardless of size.
“The message to the parents and the adults is that there is no need for that (A-B) culture at that age,” Grillo said. “The reality is trying to maximize your culture and make it the best you possibly can for every player’s development. What might work in one region might not work exactly the same in another, but there are positive components of it and core principles that can work everywhere. We just want to create the best possible culture and development environment for kids. However that works for you in your area, make it work, and don’t be afraid to create positive change. What Duluth did is a great example of making hard decisions and creating positive change.”