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Duluth hockey association embraced change to combat falling participation

Glen Avon Dynamo Squirt B hockey players Logan Lian (25) and Nick Heffernan (31) head out to the ice after intermission during a game against Hermantown at Fryberger Arena in Duluth on Wednesday evening. (Clint Austin / / 5
Dean Cooke, one of the coaches of the Portman Black Squirt B team, talks to his players between periods during a game at Fryberger Arena on Wednesday. (Clint Austin / / 5
Members of the Glen Avon Dynamo Squirt B team listen to their coaches before a game against Cloquet at Fryberger Arena in Duluth on Wednesday evening. (Clint Austin / / 5
Luke Carlson, goaltender of the Glen Avon Dynamo Squirt B team, dives to make a save during a game against Cloquet at Fryberger Arena on Wednesday. (Clint Austin / / 5
Duluth Amateur Hockey Association registration numbers5 / 5

Duluth gets its close-up this week when Hockey Day Minnesota’s television cameras focus in on Bayfront Festival Park.

In separate games Saturday, the boys high school teams from Denfeld and East will take over a picturesque outdoor rink in front of rabid fans and a Fox Sports North television audience.

Sometime during the broadcasts, the city will be lauded for its unique position in youth hockey.

In a modern era in which many young players come to the organized game through indoor rinks, the city maintains a strong tether to hockey’s outdoor history. Seven youth programs throughout the city continue to operate the outdoor rinks where the city’s youngest players get their introduction to the game.

“Duluth is unique and it’s really hard to compare it to another city,” said Dave Shea, a board member in the Gary-Morgan Park rink association. “We have seven different, completely separate rink boards. It’s old-time neighborhood hockey, and that’s what’s kind of cool about it.”

It’s an idyllic hockey story ripe for celebration. But as recently as five years ago, the story, like a tired forward desperate for a line change, was losing steam. Youth hockey registration numbers that 20 years ago regularly topped 1,000 players in the city had dipped to a four-year average of 703 between 2009 and 2012.

With its numbers declining, the Duluth Amateur Hockey Association (DAHA) — the umbrella organization that governs the city’s rink programs — made a dramatic and controversial change. It did away with its elite traveling program for 9- and 10-year-olds, who are known in hockey as squirts. No longer would its best players be culled from the herd so soon.

“We were earmarking kids way too early,” said Clarke Coole, the recently retired executive director of DAHA. “We were taking better-skilled players and leaving the others behind.”

Reversing a trend

A quick online check of the state’s current Squirt AA rankings reveals a who’s who of hockey programs — including Edina, Rochester, Eden Prairie, Hermantown, Grand Rapids, even Superior — but no team from Duluth.

Duluth’s move to strictly Squirt B hockey beginning with the 2012-13 season means it doesn’t field an elite “AA” team until the peewee level for 11- and 12-year-olds.

Instead of having its best squirts play for an elite citywide team, Duluth keeps almost all of its squirts at their local outdoor rinks, playing for their neighborhood teams. The rare exception is the squirt player who is good enough to try out for and make the city’s Peewee AA team; there is only one such player this season.

“It really comes down to retention and understanding this whole mentality of, ‘Why do kids play sports?’ and, ‘What makes them want to stay?’ ” DAHA president Brett Klosowski said. “If they’re not having fun and not playing with friends, they’re not going to stick to it.”

As its numbers shrank, DAHA organizers identified a problem area when they noted the city was losing upwards of 40 percent of players any given year in the transition from squirts to peewees. Some of the losses were players who were discouraged by having been cut during tryouts for the Squirt AA team. Some of the losses were players who didn’t want to play anymore if their closest friends were going to be taken from their neighborhood rink.

“Cutting kids at 9 or 10 is pretty damaging to the kid’s psyche,” Klosowski said.

In the four years since the move to citywide Squirt B hockey, DAHA has stanched its dwindling participation numbers and seen its most recent four-year average rise to 745.

In 2015-16, DAHA retained 61 of the 70 former squirts — 87 percent — who were transitioning to peewee.

The local hockey cognoscenti credit the trend reversal to the decision to keep the city’s best squirts at their local rinks, playing for their neighborhoods.

“The benefit that it has for Duluth is it gives those rinks the opportunity to have kids playing with their buddies,” Shea said. “There’s value in kids playing with buddies and having those neighborhood rinks thrive.”

Contentious change

When USA Hockey introduced its American Development Model in 2009, it sparked debate among families and youth hockey coaches and organizers about how players develop best.

Every youth player registers with USA Hockey, which governs the sport all the way up to the U.S. Olympic hockey teams. With its new model, USA Hockey was addressing a national trend that showed 60 percent of players dropping out before reaching peewee hockey. Mirroring the trend in Duluth, nationwide registration numbers had been in overall decline since 2000.

USA Hockey argued that its athletes specialized in hockey too soon, traveled and competed too much and spent too little time developing skills. It encouraged participation in multiple sports and a development curve that emphasized practice repetition.

It sounded good. But year-round and summer hockey leagues are more prevalent than ever today, and “I made the traveling team” continues to be among the most prestigious phrases a young player can utter.

“It’s tough to go against the status quo,” said Jason Watt, DAHA’s new executive director. “People know better, but they feel like their kid is going to get left behind.”

The boardrooms in which Duluth made its shift five years ago were contentious, featuring squabbles and a faction that believed Duluth’s best players were being ignored.

“We needed to do what was best for everybody — not what was best for the people who screamed the loudest,” Coole said.

When it followed Duluth by adopting the Squirt B format for the 2013-14 season, the Cloquet Amateur Hockey Association fought similar dissention.

“It was a highly debated and very emotional decision,” said Mick Maslowski, president of CAHA. “But the (American Development Model) isn’t someone’s opinion. It’s science-based fact about long-term athlete development, and we needed to listen.”

Since its change, Cloquet has seen retention rates jump at the post-squirt levels of peewee and bantam (ages 13-14). After averaging 68 players between those levels in three seasons prior to the change, Cloquet has averaged 92 players at those levels in the two seasons since it went to playing Squirt B hockey exclusively.

“It is difficult sometimes for adults to put the competitive juices aside and just focus on helping the kids improve their skills,” Maslowski said. “We haven’t been perfect in implementing ADM, but our numbers tell us we are headed in the right direction.”

Hurting the best?

When Chris Locker played youth and high school hockey in the east end of Duluth, he developed preternatural instincts for the game.

Playing alongside Dave Spehar as kids, Locker became an unrivaled young playmaker, helping to form one of the most memorable duos in state history. Their commitment to teamwork culminated in Duluth East’s 1995 AA state championship, which will always be remembered for Spehar putting up hat tricks in all three state tournament games.

Now the coach of Duluth’s elite Peewee AA team, Locker sees first-hand the impacts of a league employing a Squirt B model. On one hand he believes in it because it maintains the viability of Duluth’s neighborhood rinks.

“You want to make sure you keep it as fun as possible and get them a few years to love the game, love being at the rink, love the smell of the concession stand,” Locker said. “We want to get that love of hockey in their hearts that makes it harder to lose them.”

But Locker also sees the downside of the format for the most-skilled young players. No one really makes the jump in age onto his team and dominates anymore, he said. Newcomers to his team tend to struggle with the speed and pace. Their understanding of puck movement is diminished, he said, for not always having played with players who they can pass to and expect to get a puck back.

“Sometimes I do believe the best situation for kids to succeed is that they need to be with the same level of talent they’re at,” Locker said.

An elite player on a Squirt B team can sometimes play a one-person game, swooping and driving around lesser players to gaudy totals of goals.

“There’s nothing wrong with burying the puck and scoring a lot of goals,” Coole said, while also arguing that more advanced squirts can learn leadership skills by being the best player on a team.

Not everyone buys into the pro-Squirt B argument.

“Personally, I don’t agree with it,” Scott Pionk said. “There’s no point in staying down and just ruining Squirt B games.”

Pionk resides in Duluth’s neighboring hockey hotbed of Hermantown, where Squirt AA hockey is alive and well. The city is ranked 15th in the state among Squirt AA programs.

Pionk operates the popular Pionk Hockey camps and clinics. A lifelong coach at several levels, Pionk also knows what it’s like to raise elite players. He has coached and watched his sons carry on through the highest levels of hockey. Two of his five sons, Neal and Nate Pionk, became recent fixtures at the high school state tournament and now are furthering their careers at the University of Minnesota Duluth and in junior hockey, respectively.

Some parents and players struggle, Pionk said, when the children play elite summer hockey against teams in the Twin Cities and from across the state only to come back to play neighborhood Squirt B hockey.

“It’s not an easy adjustment for those families, that’s what I hear out of them,” Pionk said. “But that said, while it might be a nuisance to the stronger players, it has helped DAHA as a whole.”

Pionk said he believes a compromise would be to allow the strongest squirts to move up and play lower-level peewee hockey. But because DAHA won’t allow a player to move up a level unless he or she can make the traveling AA team, that’s not a current possibility and unlikely to change.

“The reason for that is then he’s taking a spot from a kid who is truly a peewee player,” Klosowski said.

With player registration numbers climbing, DAHA is loathe to consider any move that would potentially reduce participation. For now, despite any shortcomings, the Squirt B model is being embraced in the city.

“There were people dead against it, but it’s been the best decision DAHA has made in years,” Coole said. “It’s raised the bar for everybody and brought community pride back to each rink.”