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By Stephanie Dukesherer, 01/30/20, 9:00AM EST


This is the first installment of a three-part series highlighting the ‘07, ‘08 & ‘09 birth years - the first groups to come up through KOHA (from Beginning Hockey, 6U and up) under the USA Hockey Model Association development philosophy.

KALAMAZOO, MI - On April 19, 2013 the Kalamazoo Optimist Hockey Association (KOHA) announced to its membership that for the 2013-14 season, it would be adopting USA Hockey’s American Development Model (ADM) and focusing on age-appropriate player development through station-based practices that increase puck touches and ice utilization. 

As the responses from membership came in, one thing was glaringly obvious: Change is hard. With the support of USA Hockey resources to educate coaches and parents, KOHA embarked on a journey to embrace developing young athletes in a way that helps each one reach their potential.

Focusing on player development does not mean sacrificing being competitive. Today’s game has evolved into one that focuses on skill, puck possession, and “understanding the concepts and habits of the four roles of hockey so players are interchangeable in their responsibilities when the play dictates,” says USA Hockey’s ADM Regional Manager, Bob Mancini. Some describe it as “positionless hockey,” but Mancini is quick to point out that it does NOT mean that players have no responsibility when they’re on the ice, but instead, it means players need to read and react to determine their responsibility in order to make a good hockey play. “Teaching awareness, decision-making, and hockey sense through the understanding of the four roles allows players to be successful no matter what level they play in the future,” Mancini said. “These four roles - Offense with the Puck, Offense away from the Puck, Defense on the puck carrier and Defense away from the puck carrier - are the cornerstones of hockey. Every player, no matter what position assigned at the face-off, must excel in those four roles to be successful as an individual, and as part of a winning team.”

Putting players in situations during practice that force them to make hockey decisions in small areas not only works on individual skills, it forces them to learn the game by reading and reacting and learning from mistakes. “I have been on the Skills Staff for three years now, and I admit, when I first got here, I was skeptical of the ADM and the development philosophy. I didn’t understand it, and it wasn’t anything like what I experienced in youth hockey,” said Kyle Bushee, a KOHA alum who finished the 18/19 season with the Kalamazoo Wings (ECHL) as one of the All-Time leaders in league history for most games played. “The development I’ve seen in our players across the board and from year-to-year is amazing. I have learned you can teach everything in small areas - everything. Whether it’s forecheck, D-zone, power play, penalty kill - whatever it is a team needs, you can get creative and teach it in a small area, quarter ice or half ice,” said Bushee.

KOHA’s 2007 birth year players were the first group of kids to have the ADM for their entire youth hockey experience, from 6U on up, and this season, Bushee joined the staff of the 2007 K-Wings Gold team. “Coaching these kids has been a privilege,” he said. “Yes we have had success, and I truly believe we win games because we are more skilled. We let the kids go and play - no systems - they just play hockey; they’ve been doing it since they were six years old. And I think that freedom as a player correlates to more success.” The 07 Gold K-Wings play in the Howe 1 Division of the Little Caesars Amateur Hockey League (LCAHL), and won the regular season this year. “Our boys love to compete against each other, they love it - and they love playing hockey. To them, they’re playing a game they love and maybe don’t even realize they’re working on a specific skill because of the way the drill has been designed. The practices are so much fun - and more often than not it translates to the games,” said Bushee. “Yes, we run into teams that are just as skilled as us, and we probably deserve to lose, but I think it’s a good teaching point for the kids, that, even though we’re good, there is still more we can learn and work on. Losing is ok - it’s a humble reminder to keep working hard.”

What it really comes down to is this: patience. It’s easy to get caught up in the desire to win, or even defining success by wins and losses, when the real litmus test from year to year for a coach or parent is this: are the players getting better? At the most elite levels, the game has changed. Embracing how to foster development at the youngest ages to meet each child’s potential is really what the ADM is about. “Learning takes time. Athletes develop their skills at their own pace and patience is essential. The ADM provides context for the drills and creates fun settings for athletes to develop those skills,” says Jodi Edington who is an educator and hockey mom who currently has ‘07 and ‘09 K-Wings players at KOHA.

Jeff Kares, who has a 2007 K-Wings player, said this, “I have enjoyed watching Evan and his teammates play a sport they love. The 07 K-Wings are consistently the more skilled team on the ice. Our family trusts the NHL, USA Hockey and KOHA to create the best hockey teaching systems.”

Matt Moorman, who has a background in education and two boys (10U and 12U) playing for KOHA says, “Trust the process. What usually makes a great hockey player at an early age is speed and aggression. But that always comes at different times for different kids. The more confident they become, the faster they are with and without the puck. And that confidence is built by being put in situations where they are able to touch the puck and experience success. That feeling of success will always transfer into games without thought.” When asked how his boys feel about their development, Moorman said, “They are both experiencing a lot of success and they love it!”

Historically, KOHA’s K-Wings teams started in Howe 3 or 4 and perhaps worked up to competing in Howe 2, with the occasional birth year finding success over the years in Howe 1 or even the Yzerman (highest LCAHL) Division during the regular season or for the playoffs. The 2019/20 season saw the 2007 Gold K-Wings, 2008 Gold K-Wings and the 2009 K-Wings all posting Howe 1 Regular Season Championships. Three consecutive birth years - the first three to come up entirely in the ADM era at KOHA - are having competitive success because of the development philosophy.

“We’ve proven the way we’ve done things and how we use the ADM and small areas - even though we don’t practice systems or anything - correlates to success. The more skilled players we continue to develop, the more success we will have on the ice,” said Bushee. 

This is the first installment of a three-part series highlighting the ‘07, ‘08 & ‘09 birth years - the first groups to come up entirely through KOHA (from Beginning Hockey, 6U and up) under the USA Hockey Model Association development philosophy. While these installments feature the 07/08/09 birth years, we will touch on the birth years who helped forge the pathway (04/05/06), as well as our younger birth years (10/11 and beyond) and their future.