PostHeaderIcon The State of Youth Hockey in Illinois

Hockey Stop Magazine Commentary

By Paul O’Donnell

Several months ago, during a conversation with a nationally respected hockey colleague concerning general youth hockey issues around the country, our talk eventually evolved into a discussion about the state of youth hockey in Illinois. With an impressive understanding and knowledge of youth hockey throughout the U.S. he began asking questions, trying to gain a deeper insight into the youth hockey of our state. His name is unimportant, but since our conversation there isn’t a significant period of time that goes by where one or two of his queries or insights about youth hockey in Illinois has failed to enter my thoughts.

During the course of our conversation he asked a very insightful question which could have been considered rhetorical if he hadn’t been looking for a response.  His question to me was this: “For the life of me I can’t understand, for as long as youth hockey has been around in Illinois, why it isn’t farther along than it is?”

For anyone who’s been around Illinois youth hockey since its early inception, this question probably isn’t very surprising. But, I’m sure for many others who have little knowledge of Illinois hockey’s history and how it has affected us through the years and possibly into the future it will probably require further explanation.

To better understand how this State’s hockey has gotten to where it is today one has to go back to its earliest roots, which extend over four decades, just after the National Hockey League doubled in size during the late 1960s.  Back then Chicago, like any other ravenous NHL city at that time, was caught up in a hockey feeding frenzy of the greatest hockey boom in our country’s history.

For almost a decade, beginning in 1967, fledgling youth hockey organizations began springing-up in every area of the country where an NHL television broadcast could be received.  In the early days of the boom Chicagoland wasn’t much different from other NHL cities that had successful franchises. All of these metropolitan areas were experiencing similar growing pains and infrastructure problems during this time period, trying to keep pace with hockey enrollments and ice time demands. However since other, more traditional hockey states, had a longer history of club programs and sanctioned high school teams than Illinois, the integration of youth hockey was much smoother for “them” during this crucial of development.

In the late 70s, supply was beginning to catch up to demand. New hockey rinks were popping up all over Chicago providing ice to new or growing youth hockey and high school organizations. But, the boom turned to bust when the supply of ice increased so much that rinks began running after hockey clubs, offering cut rate prices to organizations that agreed to “house” their program with them.  Rather than growing the sport, these rinks were merely taking from Peter to feed Paul, all the while driving down ice prices.  Yes, it was great for the clubs, but in the late ‘70s the “Great Hockey Boom” turned to bust when rinks couldn’t meet their mortgages because a lack of demand for their ice.  Coupled with a recession and OPEC’s oil embargo numerous rinks closed their doors, leaving organizations with no place to play.

While other hockey states had similar issues it didn’t have the same effect that it had on Chicagoland because in states like Massachusetts hockey at the junior high school, high school  and college levels was a sanctioned sport completely paid for at taxpayer expense. Hockey parents there didn’t have the burden of worrying about expenses like, ice time, coach’s salaries, uniforms, bus travel and even hockey sticks.  Indeed, that still is the case to this date.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s when youth hockey in Chicago and elsewhere began to get back on track.  The economy began to improve and youth hockey was gaining popularity again as a result of a re-energized Chicago Blackhawks team. Armed with players like Dennis Savard, Al Secord and Steve Larmer in 1982-83 the Blackhawks had an excellent season, coming in first place in their division and making it to the conference finals. Unfortunately, the Blackhawks success didn’t rub off on youth hockey.  While hockey was reestablishing its footing in our area, the taxpayer funded states were climbing to even higher levels of success.

Another important reason for the surge in states such as Michigan, Massachusetts and Minnesota, was that more  than a decade earlier progressive thinking hockey areas of the country’ began taking a radical turn in their methods of training.  After the legendary ”Summit Series” between the Canadian NHL All-Stars and the Soviet Union National Team in September of 1972, many forward thinking coaches immediately understood the significance of this new hockey style.  Hockey administrators and coaches in these hockey rich states began reinventing the youth hockey training wheel that resulted in a much greater emphasis on Russian theory and methods of training, systems and tactics; something Chicago youth hockey organizations were not in a position to consider at that time

Training players in what we now know as the European method required more highly skilled coaches who could demonstrate the more difficult edge and balance training and who also had a command of the nuances of the game that Chicago, to a large extent, didn’t have.   The inability, during those early years, to recognize the changing hockey landscape allowed us a limited ability to exploit the renewed and growing popularity of the game.

It’s been almost 30 years since then and although the overall competency of our players and coaches has improved over the years, so has everyone else’s. While making progress, our youth hockey programs continue to lag behind in cultivating experienced Illinois coaching talent.

In some respects, Illinois is still a first-generation hockey state because of this disparity. By that I mean, even though we have a long history hockey in our area, the vast majority of our hockey players are children of parents who have little or no playing experience.

If Illinois really wants to be a serious player at the national youth hockey level, we are going to have to radically change the way we train the coaches who teach our children. The USA hockey coaches’ training methods that we currently use today don’t even begin to scratch the surface that can satisfy our own needs. While their cookie-cutter coaching, one-size-fits-all method of instruction may be fine for some areas of the country, in states like Illinois we need to find better ways of coaching, which will be more tailored to our needs.

In the United States, USA hockey’s coaching certifications range from levels 1 through 5 with five being the highest possible coaching achievement in our country. In our country, a level I certification requires an eight hour class; in Finland to get a diploma as an instructor, a coach is required complete 100 hours of mandatory study.

To obtain a level V coaching certification in Finland, the applicant is required to have a college degree from the Department of physical education-in the study of hockey. Our own, USA hockey’s’ level V certification, consists of a five day seminar, that usually, takes place once every other year and a 15 page thesis. While I do believe Finland’s level V certification is somewhat extreme and probably unworkable, for most of our hockey coaches in our country, I hope I’ve made my point.

Much to do has been made of the recently instituted American Developmental Model of training.  Yet, while excellent in concept (although European in origin), its execution leaves much to be desired.  Requiring coaches to go onto the internet and teach themselves the model lacks a realistic view of how one learns.  Who, for example, is available to immediately answer a question a coach might have when reviewing the internet material?  How does one monitor the learning or whether, in fact, a busy volunteer coach even has peeked at the material on the web?  I’ll leave it to your imagination to think of other problems that unmonitored, hands off approach to coach’s training might present.

If there was ever a time during Illinois’ 40 year youth hockey history that is better suited to a complete overhaul of training methods it’s now! With the resurrection of the Chicago Blackhawks over the past few years it is quite possible that the State’s youth hockey ranks will expand tremendously.  With greater enrollment will come a need for more trained coaches.   And with USA Hockey’s proclaimed goal of developing more great ice hockey players, it is incumbent upon someone to step up and fill the training void so that our present coaches and down the road, potential coaching talent will be able to do just that.

I read somewhere that the difference between a complainer and a problem solver is that the latter will suggest answers.  I am not a complainer and to that end I’ll provide my common sense solutions to our coaching dilemma in a Part II to be in the next issue.

Hockey stop would like to know what you think. We would like your opinions on the State of Illinois Hockey and will be posting some your comments in our next edition. You can make your voice heard in the comments section of this article at www. neckuphockey.com.

15 Responses to “The State of Youth Hockey in Illinois”

  • Paul;

    I was intrigued by your discussion on the state of coach and player development in Illinois and the USA!

    I am a Canadian coach that has been fortunate to accumulate both formal education (HBK., MSc. Kin) and accreditation in coaching hockey. I hold a professional charter in coach and an Advanced Level Coach (equiv to Level 5) in Cananda. I have also coached at the varsity, professional and junior levels.

    But – In my opinion, despite hockey being “our game” up here in Canada we are well behind USA Hockey’s development system for players and coaches.

    Our facilities here are largely outdated and our coaches are not trained nor current in how to teach the game and develop athletes. My cursory examination in the USA (mainly Minnesota and New England) – I am a scout as well – is that your hockey is benefiting from strong private hockey development programs, good facilities, and a strong high school and NCAA system (Div I – III). We simply lack this level of professionalism in Canada regarding the sports development.

    I do however agree that coaches in Canada and the USA need to be trained. I do not however agree that new technologies will not work. I think they will be vital in training and educating coaches in the future.

    Lastly, I also must note that both Canada and the USA have to better align to the Long Term Athlete Development Model like European Countries or else we will continue to waist resources and efforts without success in developing healthy and well athletes that can compete at various sport levels for their entire lives.

    Keep up the good work.

  • Thanks for your interest concerning the article. I was intrigued by the statement you made, that there is a lack of coaching expertise in, of all places, Canada! Who would’ve “thunk-it”?

    Although, it did seem me like the Canadian hockey community, as a whole, seem to take a head in the sandapproach for a few years after the Summit series in 1972; refusing to acknowledge the validity of the European game. Even well into the 90s I can remember competing against Canadian teams that were still playing north-south hockey.

    Unfortunately in our country, our so-called hockey experts who make the ultimate decisions about what is considered to be good hockey and what is not, have been buffaloedinto believing that the European method of training is some kind of magic bullet that will solve all of our hockey training woes.

    A perfect example of this in our country is our national governing bodies’ (USA hockey Inc.) misguided plan, called the American Developmental Model(ADM) to establish a new training procedures in our country.

    The NHL gave USA Hockey 8 million bucks to come up with new training practices and procedures for our youth hockey players in America.

    After reading it, I was simply amazed that the best that the people in our country, who are responsible for all of our training needs in our country, that this was the best they could come up with.

    If you ever have the opportunity to read the original plan, you won’t have to bother reading the plan itself; all you have to do is go to the back, in the bibliography section to find out whose innovative brains they used to come up with this mess. For the most part it looks like a Who’s Who of European hockey.

    But there aren’t just European ice hockey references, there’s bunch of references that they used from other sports like Field Hockey to reference. I’m just sorry that they weren’t able to reference some obscure European Cricket coach so it could it could give us even more
    of an excuse to goof on them. How the NHL ever bought in to this bull-shi… “I mean” proposal is anyone’s guess?

    It wouldn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination, for anyone who read the entire plan, who wasn’t familiar with ice hockey, to be left with the impression that somehow our best and brightest hockey minds in our country, were incapable of any kind of “out-of-the-box thinking” much less forming any kind of cognitive hockey thought.
    The problem with hockey in the United States, and from what you’ve told me Canada also, isn’t that there’s a lack of coaching knowledge or innovation in our respective countries, it’s that their voices have not been heard above the local hockey pecking order. I truly believe that that the major reason why our current as well as future innovators and thinkers haven’t been heard from yet, is that the unique successful training methods that individual coaches organizations employ all over North America, have been largely ignored by the powers-that-be.

    I’m sure you’ll agree with me that, it seems like whenever we do have a chance to hobnob with our so-called hockey elites, you’re left with the impression that, all you are, is some kind of child that knows nothing about the sport. Let me tell-ya, lately, because my writings I’ve had the opportunity to exchange views with many so-called experts, and the impression that I’ve come away with often, is that they don’t know any thing more than you are me. And sometimes they don’t know as much.

    This is especially true when it comes to the youth hockey level. While they may be hockey geniuses at the NHL and other professional levels, I’d like to see how well they perform, for their first time, in front of a learn to skate class filled with a gaggle of 6 to 8-year-olds.

    It’s a shame that, that this money couldn’t have been better spent. Think of what $8 million would have meant to our youth hockey nation, overall, if they had decided to use that NHL funding more wisely, through better coaching education for the people who ultimately bare 100% other responsibility for developing all our players in North America.

    I’ll get off my high- horse now. thanks for your comments.

  • well done!nice job!

  • Rae says:

    My seven year old son has become obsessed with hockey, ever since the Blackhawks won. When I say obsessed – I mean he lives, breaths, and speaks HOCKEY.
    He finishes homework in five minutes and then plays on the concrete floor in our basement for hours on end, seven days a week, all these months. He has taught himself how to ice skate, at the local rink. What do you suggest should be the next step?

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