Reinventing Your Sport: A Look at USA Hockey

summarized by David DeWinter
YouTube player



Ken Martel – Technical Director, USA Hockey

The 3-Sentence Summary

USA Hockey faced a crisis in 2008 when it recognized both a declining youth male membership and declining performances at the international level. What followed was a systematic revamp of the youth development model, which reversed the decline and kept kids coming back year after year. Key strategies included focusing on fun and games-based playing, especially for the youngest athletes; improving safety; mandating additional education for coaches; and creating programming specific to age groups based on their physical and cognitive development.


0:51 Clayton Chapman award for Brice Crossley


3:57 Ken Martell will talk through the journey of reinventing USA hockey and its youth athlete development model (ADM) to promote sport growth.

5:34 Hockey and rowing have a lot in common; the technique and tactics may be different, but the culture around sport is the same, and so are some of our challenges.

6:28 If kids don’t love it, they won’t play it and excel at it.


8:35 Challenges in 2008:

  • Declining youth registrations – drop in 40k male youth players from 2000 to 2008, even though overall growth was up.
  • Declining youth retention rates (kids weren’t falling in love)
    • 20% of players dropped after one season
    • 43% dropped out by age 9
    • 60% dropped out before age 11
  • World Ranking concerns

11:05 Tactics to address these challenges:

  • Recruitment
  • Age Appropriate Programming – Don’t treat young kids like high-performance athletes
  • Coach Development
  • Parent Information – An informed parent is an ally

12:37 Board-mandated Changes

  • Removed body-checking from 12 & under
  • Discontinued 12 & under national championships
  • Discontinued National 14 Camp
  • Mandated Additional Coach Education – Created common language for coaches; “if you want to change culture, language is a good starting point.”

15:23 Results

  • Increased Retention: Adopters are 47% are more likely to retain kids
  • In 10 years, we reversed the decline of total registered youth.

18:50 We’ve tracked registrations for a long time. This data is critical to decision-making as an NGB. Every athlete, coach, admin, and official has to register with USA Hockey.

20:45 Both our registration numbers and our performance at the high levels were signals we needed to take action.

22:24 3/4 of the growth came from 8 and under; that age group tends to be largest entry point for us.

23:26 It wasn’t until 2014-15 that the decline stopped and started growing in every age category.

Simple, not easy

26:06 Principles

  • Long-term focus: where will be in 10 years?
  • We want kids to be year-round athletes, not year-round hockey players. (Data shows early multi-sport participation is good for our kids.)
  • More playtime/gametime (more autonomy): free time
  • Safety

28:41 Change Talent ID to Motivation ID: Find passionate people first

29:49 The Plan

  • Partnership with the NHL (growth through media visibility)
  • Connection point with local clubs
  • Start at the youngest age group, then grow up
  • Use elite players and coaches for messaging
  • Change legislation, rules that work against player development (even though they might make it easier for administrators)
    • Who’s allowed to compete
    • How teams are formed
    • Allowing girls and boys on the same team
  • Equipment correctly sized to fit child
  • Games as a significant portion of the practice environment: FUN
  • Overall, create more opportunities for players to get engaged and feel challenged
  • Reduce roster sizes for younger teams so more players could play

35:40 Biggest lesson in enacting change: Problems lingered in the areas of the country where we didn’t rip the Band-Aid off and just say, “We’re doing this.”

Fruits of our Labor

38:53 Success = do your kids come back next year? Those teams were winning.

39:41 Half of the NHL first round draft picks were from the US in 2019.

40:25 Best player pool 23 and younger comes from the US.

Stumbling Blocks

41:59 Understand who all your stakeholders are. Not all of them have the same goals (children, parents, coaches, clubs/facilities, internal structure). We were changing facilities’ business models, and we didn’t do a good job showing our facilities how this would affect bottom line.

44:29 Help craft messaging for local facilities to reuse, as opposed to letting them own messaging (“Come join youth hockey!” with a picture of a face with a black eye, cuts, and missing teeth)

Successful Strategies

47:20 Parent newsletter targeted by age category of their child. Drip of information to help involved parents be incredibles advocates of the sport, coaches, etc.

50:06 Greeting cards that kids could give to their friends or class with info about trying hockey for free.

51:06 Pick up the phone and call the families who didn’t come back this year.

What do you know vs. what do you think you know?

52:11 Map what we know about how kids learn at different ages to how we coach them.

53:57 Example videos of games-based practices

59:09 Takeaways

  • Competition structure dictates the development structure
  • Key stakeholders don’t always want what is best for athletes
  • Fact do not win arguments…emotions do.
    • Learn what’s important at the local level. We want to be part of exclusive groups
  • Don’t underestimate people’s passion, especially when money is on the line.
  • Chelsea Experiment: Sometimes your local directors know what’s best.
  • Coaching Education
    • Awareness of the development model
    • Age/Developmentally Appropriate Coaching
    • Local Coach Developer Support

1:07:30 Steve Morris Video: Total cost of assholes – eliminate them because they suck the life out of an organization.

1:09:39 We’ve got to get them to play!

1:10:28 Contact info


1:11:05 As trailblazers in changing your youth development model, where did you start?

We had a few examples to look at: some local clubs which were doing really well, and some countries in Europe that were doing a great job. We looked at USOPC research and research from academia.

Canada has a lot of research from their universities (but they don’t tend to apply it).

1:14:59 Did you experience pushback saying all your coaches have to be certified?

That preceded our ADM change. But generally we made very few “mandate” changes. It was mostly information and convincing coaches that there’s a better way. Then those coaches who picked it up started winning, and that was a signal to other teams.

Wins validate what we’re doing.

We take lessons learned from national teams (youth level) and share them back with coaches at the local level.

1:19:54 Was there one strategy/tactic that outshone all the others, or do you really need the combination of everything you did?

It was the combination.

  • We’re pretty good at getting kids to show up, but their experience wasn’t as good as it could be.
  • We created a program to make rental equipment. Knock down the barriers to trying the sport!

1:23:06 Membership costs?

$46/year (under 6 is free). Sometimes small affiliate fee.

1:24:08 How do you retain adults and do you spend a lot of time creating resources for them?

They really just want to show up at a rink and play with their friends, or maybe they want to go to an event. Give people what they want!

1:26:05 What resources does USA Hockey provide to clubs that want to get started?

We help with coaching education, official education, recruiting material, etc.

1:27:51 How do you prevent burnout for your national team players?

The kids that ramped up too early just didn’t have the emotional energy to continue. 98% of NHL athletes were multi-sport athletes until they were 14. We monitor training load, fatigue, time off, etc. so we create a better environment for them.

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