The best thing I saw this week wasn’t a fancy goal or breath-taking save, monumental upset or impressive win streak. It was something so subtle, so small, yet its impact can be profound and long lasting.
The best thing I saw this week was Traverse City West’s junior captain series and the awesome effects it can have on everyone involved.
Tonight’s junior captain is Owen, Owen attends Willow Hill elementary school and play hockey for the TC North Stars. Glad to have you here tonight Owen! pic.twitter.com/AwSJMYQ8fz— Titan Hockey (@tcwhockey) February 12, 2020
I’ve seen some pretty interesting ways that programs look to get youth players involved and engaged with the high school teams. Classroom readings where the high schoolers visit elementary schools and read kids’ books to the classes are pretty common. Some instances where varsity players will drop in on a PeeWee team’s practice. There’s nothing better than the excitement that a group of 10-year-olds display as they high-five the seniors running out onto the ice.
There’s a lot of unique interactions out there between the current crop of Michigan High School hockey players and the next generation coming up through the ranks. Some coaches are really good at creating those moments that resonate for both the high school athlete and the young, aspiring hockey player. So when I see something as cool and as special as the junior captains from TC West, I’ve got to give props for the concept and implementation, shed light on it and maybe spark ideas for other coaches on how they can inspire future members of their program.
Connecting the high school team with the youth organizations is paramount to a program’s success, I cannot stress that enough. Talking with a lot of coaches this season, one thing was consistent among the top programs in the state: you have to be involved at the grassroots level.
You wanna win a state title? You wanna climb the state rankings from 100th to inside the Top 25? Hell, you wanna just win a conference championship?! It starts with PeeWee hockey at your local youth organization.
Some go as far as coaching a younger age group along with running a high school program. That is quite ambitious and not everyone can manage two separate hockey schedules, work life and a family life, so I understand why that’s not very common.
I’ve found that a lot of high school coaches double as youth hockey directors, like Joel Breazeale and J.J. Bamberger, among others. Again, a lot of work but it puts MI-HS coaches on the front lines, involved with players and families from a young age.
A lot of coaches also function as teachers in the school systems, giving them direct contact with kids on a daily basis via the classroom. Also a great opportunity to develop those relationships and connect with athletes before they ever reach high school.
The point is, if you’re looking to build a program, create a culture and develop successful teams, the process begins several years before they ever put on your jersey and represent your colors.
If you can’t reap the benefits of coaching an ‘09-birth year team in conjunction with your high school team; if you’re not the hockey director at the nearby rink; if you’re not a teacher in the school systems, you have to find creative ways to involve the younger kids with the high school team and establish those relationships as early as possible.
Stay in close contact with the PeeWee and Bantam coaches, talk regularly and check in on how players are performing. Have your kids mentor the youth teams, divide and conquer with 3-4 skaters at a practice for each age level. Host a “youth skater of the game” and have them stand on the blue line with your team for the national anthem. Whatever it is, find a way to bridge that gap between the learn-to-skaters and your soon-to-be high school graduates. It’s great community service for the 16- and 17-year-olds, and can leave a lasting impression on the kids and program for years to come.
Time and effort. That’s really what it boils to. Great job by all involved with the Titans’ junior captains, hopefully I’m writing about Owen in my 2028 preseason Top 100 Players to Watch!
That was the best thing I saw this week, how have you seen teams involve the next generation of MI-HS hockey players with their respective programs? Connect with me on Twitter to share your favorite moments and how we all can continue making high school hockey a destination for the next generation.