Happy Holidays to all of our Ho-Ho-Hockey families out there! Hopefully, you're enjoying the holiday break with loved ones. I've been doing much of the same, so providing some feedback from last weekend's trip to the Westside was a little delayed but I certainly wanted to share some thoughts from the week that was. So I apologize for the tardiness, but hopefully this will help shed some light on multiple topics and serve as a learning experience for all, like it did for me.
In three days, I traveled 339 miles, reaching 11 different programs at four different rinks and one area high school, dropping in on two practices and four games during my trip to Grand Rapids for #WestsideWeek.
The purpose? Information. Experience. Insight. Understanding. Truly, I didn’t know what to expect. I just wanted to see for myself a different perspective of the high school hockey landscape.
I’ve seen my fair share of GRCC’s, Grandville’s and FHNE’s over the last few years at regular-season matchups, the MIHL and Public School Showcases as well as the State Playoffs, but this felt different. Dropping in on Patterson Ice Center for East Grand Rapids’ 3:30 p.m. practice on Thursday afternoon felt authentic. Catching teams in a natural setting and what they do day-to-day offered a much more legitimate look behind the curtain at what goes into the sport from their seat at the table.
Looking at the same world from a completely different vantage point provided some answers, more questions, fantastic discussions and all-around great learning experience.
As much as I wanted to stay away from the “Eastside-Westside Bias” and argue against its very existence, some basic ways of life from one coast to the other can be drastically different. Going into the trip, I desperately wanted to bridge that gap and hopefully quell any misconceptions one side had about the other, and vice versa. After much of the conversations I had over the weekend, I realized it’s almost impossible to avoid comparing and contrasting metro Detroit to the Grand Rapids area. I do, however, think it can be done in a very constructive and informative way, in that no one side or region of the state is deemed better than another, but just that it is different and unique in their own ways.
For instance, probably my biggest takeaway from Westside Week was the sheer volume of multi-sport athletes on the left side of the state.
Let’s take Hartland for example. A premier Eastside team that’s had tremendous success piling up the trophy case and pushing kids into higher levels of hockey. The Eagles, I’d say have roughly five-to-seven players on their roster that dabble in a second sport, be it spring or fall. That’s got to be right in line with other Detroit area powers like Trenton, Stevenson, DCC and Brother Rice, give or take a few. In contrast, upwards of 80-90 percent of the Westside elites’ rosters like Grandville, Forest Hills Central and East Grand Rapids, for example, are made up of two- and three-sport athletes.
No one approach is better than the other, it’s just simply different. And not to say that those generalizations hold true for each region either, as there are plenty of multi-sport hockey players on the Eastside as there are athletes specializing on the Westside. Comparing some of the top teams on one side relative to the other side’s counterpart, though, I think these generalizations hold more true than not.
What it does help explain, at least for me anyways, is the general makeup of player pools at such things as Team Michigan, MDHL, split season and other out-of-season options. These opportunities are over saturated with Detroit area kids because 1. It’s closer and 2. A lot of them eat-sleep-breathe hockey 365 days a year.
Some of the top players on the Westside are also really good baseball players, standout lacrosse players or moonlight on the football team. Selling an All-State lacrosse captain the benefits of Team Michigan is a tough pitch knowing he’ll miss the first three weeks of his spring season to do so. Wanting a kid to spend his Saturdays and Sundays at the rink after being in a helmet and shoulder pads on the gridiron all week is a tall task. It’d be extremely hard for the athlete to justify and inexcusable for any coach to argue.
One other major attribute worth noting is the number of youth hockey program directors that serve as head coaches of their area high schools as well.
In my somewhat limited experience, there are generally two types of coaches across the state. One is directly affiliated to the school in the form of a teacher, aide or some other type of faculty member within the district. These coaches typically have the same schedule as the players during the school day and similar availability for practices, games, etc., while also being able to keep tabs on those kids throughout the school day.
Another more common one is your basic businessman coach who has a flexible 9-to-5 job that affords them the opportunity to make practices and games as needed. What Westside Week revealed to me was the prevalence of youth hockey directors operating in the high school space and how that can help grow a program from its very roots.
From GRAHA, to Fox Motors, to the Rockford Hockey Association or other entities, it can be a luxury to be at the ground floor of an eight or nine-year-old’s youth career. There’s a significant commitment from these coaches who, on one hand are deeply involved at the youngest levels, getting to know, relate, develop and mold hockey players. Then, some six or eight years later, finally see the fruits of their labor when those same kids come through the varsity program and represent the very community that brought them up.
In that regard, it’s almost a picture perfect example of what high school sports should be. Athletes aspiring to play for their local team, even from the youngest ages, as if that’s their end goal in hockey.
I commend these types of coaches because, similar to teachers in the school systems, they are committed for the long haul. They’re invested. They’re on the ice with the varsity squad implementing power plays and forechecks, turning around, changing windbreakers and spending another hour on the ice teaching basic hockey skills with skaters that can hardly peek over the boards.
What’s most exciting about that for me is, a good chunk of those program directors on the Westside are young. They’re 29- or 30-years-old, they’ve got the potential to be around high school hockey for a long time and make significant contributions not just to their region, but the entire state, to help grow the game. These are the coaches we as a group need to encourage, work with, share ideas and help mold the next generation of MI-HS hockey players.
Joel Breazeale has had tremendous success at Grandville over the past decade, much of which I think he’d even tell you stemmed from accomplishments at the 10U and 12U youth levels. What he was doing eight years ago may have been unconventional or “crazy” to have his hands in the youth hockey space as well as the high school world, working like a mad man to create a culture. Now, I think Breazeale’s story has gone from rarity to rule, as coaches like C.J. Pobur, Taylor Keyworth and Mike Slobodnik forge similar paths with their respective youth programs parallel to their high school squads on the Westside.
In talking with a couple coaches, I do think it would be very beneficial for some type of Westside showcase to gain some traction in the Grand Rapids area. I know there’s been previous efforts for an East-West Showcase and teams have drawn top opponents from Ohio as well as the likes of Plymouth, Northville and Rochester United. While it may not have been a total home run in its inception, sometimes those efforts require persistence and a couple years of good draws along with competitive games before it really takes off. The KLAA-MIHL Showcase has been very successful in its first few years, but the MIHL Showcase and Public School Showcase didn’t develop into giants overnight. The same could be said about the North-South Showcase in Traverse City.
Another option, instead of relying on the attraction of outside teams from other locations, maybe the region would be best served putting the largest conference in hockey on display. How awesome would it be to see all 19 teams from the OK Conference all in one place? Put every team in action on the same day, in one rink for an entire event dedicated to hockey on the Westside. High school in general could stand to benefit greatly from another major event on the calendar early in the year.
Between multi-sport athletes, program directors doubling as high school coaches and brainstorming ideas for growth in the area, I think those are some of the more distinct, noteworthy takeaways from Westside Week. There’s lots of other subtle differences and unique attributes that make Grand Rapids stand out that are worth noting too.
I love that student sections congregate along the glass behind their team’s net. They may not be as well-versed in orchestrated “I believe that we will win” chants or “if you’re winning and you know it clap your hands” cheers that bleacher creatures pride themselves on and fill the air with. However, the up close, intimate feel of being front row, pounding on the glass while your classmate hurls himself into the other side of the window just seconds after scoring a monumental goal in a pivotal moment of the game makes for an exciting atmosphere in its own right.
Game presentation is the real deal, too. Again, this approach varies from team to team around the state but watching Jenison have a ceremonial puck drop to begin festivities and follow it up with “first intermission entertainment” before the Zamboni resurfaced the ice was first-class effort. Moments like that require a lot of commitment and buy-in from booster clubs and parent groups but wow, is it a huge add to the atmosphere. All it requires is a little time and effort, and can go a long way in making attendees both young and old feel like they’re truly at a major event.
I could go on and on about in-school strength coaches, team-bonding days in the off-season, honoring alumni, approaches to practices and how different programs have varying benchmarks of success from one side of the state to another. What I think is most important in all of this, is that we as a group continue to get these coaches together in environments where they can learn from one another and grow together to help improve high school hockey as a whole.
There’s so much Detroit coaches could learn from Grand Rapids programs, and what Westside teams could learn from Northern Michigan schools, the opportunities for cross-pollination from one program to another is boundless. If I came away from the trip with ideas, imagine some takeaways Chris Newton could return to EGR with after spending two or three days immersed in the Plymouth program. Or if Joe Ford at Capital City swapped practice plans with Traverse City Central’s Chris Givens. I believe some of these opportunities are already happening throughout the state within certain relationships between coaches, but I’d love to see us as a hockey community continue to really push, drive and encourage more of it.
The more we can learn, the more we can develop, the more we can grow from one another, is really what Westside Week was about for me. I’d love to make similar efforts to the U.P., Northern and Mid-Michigan regions of the state to continue that learning process and how we all can help make high school hockey better tomorrow than it is today.
Were you following along with me on Twitter? Let’s connect and tell me what you think!