In the past, Watertown Youth Hockey coach Jan Wolff said he was used to losing up to a third of his players from year to year. Parents and children — some as young as 5 — were put off by a training schedule that more resembled a Stanley Cup ramp-up than a character building extracurricular activity.
This year, Wolff has retained 100 percent of the kids on his team, the Atoms, plus a few extra friends that decided to give the sport a try. The difference? Wolff says it's the result of the American Development Model, a method of hockey instruction that stresses practice, techniques, and plain fun to turn children into lifelong athletes.
"It doesn't make sense to be stressing blue lines and offsides to kids that still have Spongebob on the brain," Wolff said. "They're kids. It should be about learning to skate, learning to handle a puck, being active and having fun."
Wolff was one of the coaches behind introducing the model to Watertown Youth Hockey's board of directors last year. Currently he sits on that board, as well as coaching the Atoms, which this year include his 6-year-old son, Vincent.
"I grew up in Newton, playing pond hockey all weekend in the winters," Wolff said. "Back then it wasn't all serious for me. It was fun. Of course, it's a different world today, with how scheduled kids are, but I think treating hockey for such young kids like such serious business contributes to burnout of what could otherwise be some great players."
The American Development Model, a coaching model developed by USA Hockey, suggests using a smaller ice surface so that younger players get more time with the puck, as well as fewer competitive games and replacing speed drills with ice challenges like obstacle courses to help build core skills.
"We didn't invent this method, but we have sure seen great results from it," Wolff said. "Another benefit of having fewer games is that kids are traveling less, and the cost of playing hockey goes down dramatically. It costs $675 to play a season with the Atoms, and in other towns a seasonal fee can easily be twice that."
Watertown isn't alone in adopting a more fun model for youth hockey. Leagues in Belmont and Arlington have joined them in informal Sunday games, where as many as four teams will share the ice in unrefereed 'mini-games.'
"It's just got a carnival atmosphere, almost," Wolff said. "It'll be like night and day. There are parents out on the ice, lots of laughter."
It has also led to unprecedented player retention in the league, with Wolff saying he had more interest from kids than ever before.
In the overscheduled world of 21st-century childhood, it can seem counterintuitive that a less competitive and serious approach would yield suck positive results - and indeed, Wolff has said that the resistance he has heard to the ADM model has mostly been from concerned parents.
"We had some parents that were nervous about the change, because hockey is an expensive sport and they wanted to make sure their kids were getting their money's worth," Wolff said. "But I think that after a year, seeing how different the feeling is at games, they're beginning to come around."
For more information on Watertown Youth Hockey, visit their website.
Sarah Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.