"I hope other colleges and universities, regardless of the level, get involved and incorporate utilizing those players and working with the youth players. It makes the game better.”
In the spring of 2016, the Miami (Ohio) University RedHawks hockey program formed a partnership with the Butler County Youth Hockey Association. It was a win-win for both parties.
RedHawks varsity players and coaches would get an opportunity to teach the game and be positive role models. The youth program, which became known as the Miami Youth Hockey Junior RedHawks, would benefit from the experience of older players in creating a culture that would have a lasting impact on kids on and off the ice.
“We have a Junior Brotherhood program, which is tied into the varsity team,” explained Mike Norton, Miami University’s director of hockey. “Miami is founded on a brotherhood team [mentality]. At the beginner 8U through 12U levels, we have [varsity] players that are actually on the ice once a week for practice, talking to the players about working hard and being a good teammate.”
A native of Toronto, Norton played junior hockey there before spending one season at then-NCAA Division I St. Louis University. After the school discontinued its varsity hockey program, he transferred to Miami, where he became a graduate assistant after finishing his four years of eligibility. He coached the men’s club hockey team before landing his first college coaching job at NCAA Division III Wisconsin-River Falls, a position he held for one season. He then returned to the RedHawks as an assistant for six seasons before moving to Cleveland to run a youth program. In 2016, he moved back to Oxford as director of hockey after spending 22 years at the Culver Academy in Indiana.
Before the university became involved, Butler County’s program was run strictly by a parental board. Norton is quick to point out that parents still have a presence in the current system.
“We have board meetings once a month,” Norton said. “It’s a parent advisory board. They have input on what we’re doing, and they provide me with insights on what people are talking about. Miami was renting ice from us, so when this whole thing came about, it just made sense.”
Norton is a USA Hockey Coaching Education Program instructor, and a graduate of the NARCE hockey director program. When he arrived back in Oxford two years ago, some of the program’s coaches used American Development Model practices. Now, the Junior RedHawks have applied the model across the board. Norton’s goal is to increase every player’s on-ice awareness and keep them moving as much as possible during practice.
“We incorporate a lot of small-area games in our program,” Norton explained. “We do a lot of cross-ice stuff, freeze tag, British bulldog, sharks and minnows, where they have to change direction quickly. They’re getting tagged, they’ve got to have their head up. We do it with pucks and without pucks.”
Coaches work together on sharing ice time and organizing practice plans. At least four nets are used on the ice, sometimes more. As important as it is to minimize the amount of time players spend standing around, Norton also believes a work-rest ratio of 1-to-3 is ideal in teaching players to compete hard for short bursts before getting off the ice.
“When I first came here, our house program was running two-minute shifts and hitting the horn and changing lines,” Norton explained. “The first thing I did when I got here was change that to one-minute shifts, so it was making it more realistic to a hockey shift. You look at the NHL and at NCAA Division I college hockey, a lot of times, those [shifts] are 30, 35 seconds, and they get off the ice. It’s been proven through studies that recovery rate is much quicker if you do a shorter shift.”
The varsity RedHawks also incorporate the ADM during their practices, including small-area games and battle drills to improve read-and-react skills. According to Norton, the varsity players run some stations during Junior RedHawk practices.
“They’re not just out there as show pieces,” he said. “They’re actually involved directly with the drills. They’ll demonstrate drills for us, because obviously, they’re very skilled players. They show the players proper skating technique, puck handling, passing and shooting. It’s a win-win for us across the board.”
Norton would like to see more universities around the country form similar partnerships, and embrace youth hockey with the same commitment NHL teams do.
“I think it’s important for young people to be around people who are knowledgeable in the game of hockey,” he said. “It’s a very difficult sport to coach if you haven’t actually played the game. Don’t get me wrong; there are some great coaches in our program who did not play the game at a younger age, but have educated themselves and watched a lot of hockey and been to coaches’ clinics through USA Hockey. It’s a very complex sport, and there’s a lot to it. I hope other colleges and universities, regardless of the level, get involved and incorporate utilizing those players and working with the youth players. It makes the game better.”