One of the North’s oldest sports has honed its approach to getting more kids on the ice and in the game.
By Al Parker | March 14, 2020
After poking the puck past the opposing goalie, the energetic young hockey player got high-fives from teammates, then briskly skated to the bench for a 90-second shift change.
“That was SOOOO cool,” she squealed, with all the enthusiasm that an 8-year-old girl can muster.
The youngster was one of almost 700 7- and 8-year-old hockey players to play in the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association’s (MAHA) Mite Jamboree in mid-February at Centre Ice Arena in Traverse City.
“Youth hockey is alive and well,” said MAHA President George Atkinson. “Like all sports, we face challenges, but hockey is growing, while many other youth sports are down.”
Seventy-four teams from across the Lower Peninsula gathered for the three-day event. They came from Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Gaylord, Kalkaska, Lapeer, Rockford, Petoskey, Flint, Saginaw, Plymouth, Big Rapids, and the metro Detroit area. The Centre Ice parking lots were jammed with vehicles during the three-day event, with some spilling out to nearby roads.
The Centre Ice lobby area and concession stands were abuzz with activity with teams coming and going from the 7 am start to the final game each day. It’s all hockey, all the time.
“It’s certainly a big weekend for us,” said Kurt Schrank, the arena’s ice scheduler. “We had a couple of hundred kids the first year, and this year we had a little over 100 from GTHA [Grand Traverse Hockey Association] and 550 or so from the rest of the state.”
While there is no specific data on the economic impact of the event to Traverse City, most of the visiting teams stay in local hotels and eat at nearby restaurants, according to Schrank. “It has to be good for the area,” he said.
Each team was composed of six to nine players and played at least four and up to six games. Four skaters and a goalie are on the ice at any one time. Each game lasts 21 minutes. Every 90 seconds there’s a buzzer to signal a shift change, giving each player plenty of ice time. There’s no body checking allowed.
In addition to the Centre Ice event, MAHA sponsors three other jamborees — in Chelsea in November, Burton in December, and East Lansing in January. The TC event is the largest of the four annual gatherings.
Adam Schmidt, of Petoskey, coaches his son Cooper’s team. “This event gives us a pretty diverse group of teams,” he said. “We usually play the same teams in Petoskey, but you come here, and you can get to play a good group from across the state.”
Cooper got into hockey last year, as a 7-year-old. “He wanted to learn to skate,” said Schmidt. “And that just snowballed into hockey. He likes the skating and doing things out there on the ice.”
Schmidt’s team lost their first two games of the Jamboree, but that didn’t dampen their enthusiasm. “Some could care less,” he said. “They just enjoy the playing. Some take it to heart, but they all have fun.”
The Petoskey Area Hockey Association (PAHA) hosedt its own Mites Tournament on March 14–15 at the Petoskey Ice Arena in Harbor Springs.
Traverse City resident Tim White grew up in Chicago and is an avid Blackhawks fan. He coaches his son’s 8-under team. White played intramural hockey in college and still plays on a GTHA men’s team. His 12-year-old son is on a PeeWee team, his 10-year-old daughter plays on a 10-under squad, and his 7-year-old plays, too.
“The kids wanted to play, so I began coaching,” he said with a laugh. “We’re here [at Centre Ice] a lot from September to March. I enjoy sharing the experience with my kids. We’re really a hockey family.”
Getting into youth hockey doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition, Schrank said. “For some of the mites, if they get their own skates and helmets, we can provide everything else,” he said. “If they want to buy all of their own equipment, you could outfit them for $200 to $300.”
The GTHA conducts an equipment swap each August, before the season starts in September.
One of the factors in the growing popularity of youth hockey is an innovative training program called American Development Model, or ADM. It’s a national program from USA Hockey and stresses age-appropriate, age-specific competition and training for boys and girls. It emphasizes skill development and long-term athletic training principles.
Launched in New York City in 1937, USA Hockey is now in all 50 states and includes more than a million players, coaches, officials, parents and volunteers. Its primary emphasis is on the support and development of grassroots hockey programs, such as GTHA.
ADM stresses small-area games, so games of 7- and 8-year-olds are half the size of the full rink; removable boards halve the ice so two games are held at once. For even younger players, their playing surfaces are cross-ice, using the width of the normal rink as the length.
“It used to be that on a full-length rink the younger players would get bored when the action was at the other end,” said one veteran coach. “Now they play on half a rink, and everyone stays involved.”
Practices are designed to include a lot of activity. Players don’t spend time waiting in line to participate in drills or games. Coaches are urged to make sure each player is active for 40 minutes in a 60-minute practice.
Players are taught skating skills, puck control, passing and receiving passes, shooting, body contact and goaltending. They are also introduced to nutritional importance, including proper hydration and good eating habits. “I like it,” said White. “It enables the kids to build skills in a short time. It’s age appropriate and helps the kids while they’re still learning.”
Grand Traverse Hockey Association at 231 933-4842 or www.tchockey.com.
Petoskey Area Hockey Association at www.petoskeyhockey.com.
Otsego County Hockey Association at www.gaylordhockey.com.
Cadillac Area Hockey Association at www.cadillachockey.com.