The Mite Hockey Battleground - Chicago Area Youth Hockey


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Monday, June 30, 2014

The Mite Hockey Battleground

By CAYH Editor

Mite hockey is played by children 8 years of age or younger (aka 8U). In the upcoming 2014-15 season, it is also a hotly contested demographic between the two organizations that promote hockey as an athletic activity for energetic boys and girls ... and insures them while playing it. USA Hockey is the incumbent and heavyweight in this fight, and their affiliates are Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois (AHAI) and Northern Illinois Hockey League (NIHL). The challenger is Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and its affiliate Hockey Illinois.

In my opinion, Hockey Illinois was launched in response to the negative reaction some coaches and parents had to the changes to 8U hockey mandated by USA Hockey as part of their ADM initiative. One of the more problematic changes related to a reduction of the ice surface for games to 'cross ice' last season. Many competitive 8 year old players, some of whom had been playing full ice games for a season or three, were asked to play cross ice games and 'jamborees' hosted by hockey clubs that volunteered for the privilege. This cross ice season was to last until December 1 in Illinois, when the seeding round began and full ice games were allowed.

What actually happened was that many these 8 year olds quietly played a schedule of full ice games through Hockey Illinois and AAU. As Jack Blatherwick so eloquently put it in this column, parents and coaches decided that they don't need the restrictive legislation that comes with the USA Hockey membership. Is forcing cross ice games on you really what your $53 in annual dues gets you?

Once the full ice season started and everyone was back on their 'official' club teams, the experience was rocky. For many parents, the cross ice games felt pointless. Stats and wins were not tracked on the official website as they had been in the past. Laugh if you like, but parents finance youth hockey and this is what many of them care about (at least a little). Some of the jamborees were poorly organized. With the full ice games starting so late into the traditional hockey season, the season felt rushed. Tiering games were crammed into December, long after older brothers and sisters were playing meaningful games. The regular 'season' was a mere 8 games. The complaints piled up, and some adults swore off USA Hockey altogether.

AHAI Responds

AHAI hosted a Mite Hockey Open Forum on February 10, which included presidents from the NIHL travel hockey clubs, AHAI Board, and USA Hockey ADM Regional Managers Ken Martel, Bob Mancini, and Roger Grillo. Presumably from this effort, changes were made. On June 22, AHAI announced the changes to Mite hockey for the upcoming 2014-15 season via this article by Jim Clare. In short, there is a longer season beginning October 1, half-ice games count for seeding, and for 4 regular season games, and there "will be referees, scores and standings kept in all of those games". That will shut them up!

Several travel clubs have committed to following the program as of today: Sabres, Bruins, Hawks, St. Jude, Leafs, Peoria, Falcons, Bloomington, Cyclones, Jets, Jaguars, and Blues.

However, you can see in Mr. Clare's article that all of the other clubs have NO CHOICE but to comply with the 15 game maximum or risk severe sanctions! So I expect we will see all NIHL clubs on this list by the end of the month, and all NWHL clubs will adopt something similar.

Growth Will Continue For Hockey Illinois

Although AHAI and NIHL moved to address many of the complaints parents had about last season, their hands were tied by USA Hockey on the number of games and the full ice vs cross ice split. And if they weren't, at least the affiliates would have you believe that. Not enough full ice games? No problem! Just play an AAU schedule alongside your USA Hockey schedule. Not enough tournaments? Just play an extra AAU tournament and you are all good! Same players. Same coaches. Different uniform. (Right? You did at least use a different jersey RIGHT?)

So yes, this means growth will continue for Hockey Illinois. Furthermore, I expect the AAU affiliate to announce in a matter of days further expansion into Squirt (10U) hockey for the upcoming season. The trail was blazed in Michigan, which went to cross ice games a year before Illinois. All that Hockey Illinois had to do was follow it.

Our View

Is it right for AAU to sell insurance to people who already have it? No. But on the other hand, should USA hockey dictate cross ice hockey to parents and coaches who don't want it? I do not believe they should. Jack Blatherwick does not believe they should. This blog has been supportive of Hockey Illinois largely because we believe that the competition is good for hockey. I understand USA Hockey's goal of long term athlete development and principle of reducing over use injuries are met by their 8U mandates, but the paternalistic approach will fail to win over key stakeholders. Ultimately USA Hockey has not accomplished in Illinois what it set out to do.

Instead of mandating what is essentially the Swedish system of development, why not use those resources for educating parents on the risks of over use injuries? Parents are motivated in part by the fear of missing out, the fear that their child will not keep pace with his/her peers if they do not do enough to support them. Unfortunately the tug and pull between full ice and cross ice plays to that ugly truth, but is it USA Hockey's job to save parents from themselves like it was in the removal of checking at PeeWees, where player health and safety was at issue?

The market for full ice games at 8U is real, and USA Hockey has let the AAU genie out of the bottle in Illinois.

For related articles, see our coverage of the Minnesota Made lawsuit.

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  1. Update from AHAI:

    "[sic] we are aware that some organizations are looking to step outside the governance of USA Hockey." I actually don't think any of the NIHL organizations will go fully AAU at Mite and have zero USA Hockey registered teams. It frankly isn't necessary when a player can be dual registered with AAU and then join an AAU team concurrently with their club team.

    See this FAQ from the AAU New York affiliate for more on how this works:

  2. Blatherwick makes a great point in one of his articles when he states "it's not the number of games, but the way they are conducted that is destructive. There should be no games where adult egos are more important than youth development and fun."

    AHAI is trying to mandate culture which is not going to work. I do not believe all NIHL clubs will fall into line. AHAI and USA HOCKEY have no teeth trying to reprimand clubs. Look at their bylaws. The fact they are threatening clubs speaks volumes. Good hockey coaches and program directors already understand and implement adm principles into their development, they need autonomy to be creative and adapt their methods to their kids. This will improve development in the long run. In one or 2 years after MITE I don't think much of this matters as the game changes anyway.

    If AHAi really wants to implement regulations to improve development, they should outlaw dump and chase hockey before BANTAM. Unfortunately, outlawing short-benching or short-shifting cannot be regulated ecept by good coaches.

    The nex year or two will be a cluster but n the long run will improve Illinois hockey. AHAI needs a kick in the ass and AAU Illinois needs to shed its meathead image(look at their videos).

    I am a parent of players from MITE thru PEEWEE. Fire away.

    1. OK, I'm firing, dump and chase play has nothing to do with any of this. However,the new Chicago United Hockey League for Mites has formed. It will include about 15 organizations from the Chicago area. The league will consist of 24 full-ice games, plus round-robin playoffs, from September to March. USA Hockey has gone too far and now has disrupted Illinois hockey, specifically the Mites

  3. Skokie just signed up as well.

  4. It looks like there will be around 18 new organizations in Illinois that will allow the 8U player to play full ice hockey this coming season by becoming proud members of AAU. Thank You to all those that have stepped up to make Mite Hockey better in Illinois by forming this new league and not being intimidated by the threats by USA Hockey and AHAI.

  5. Looking back on the 2014-15 season, a large number of clubs did ditch their NIHL mite program and went completely AAU. Except for our AA team (which played both) our club remained with NIHL. To a person, all of the kids thought the full ice games were more fun. Shouldn't that count for something?

    I don't know why USA Hockey is picking this battle. The ADM concept has beed widely accepted and implemented in practices and skills clinics. My son spends a minimum of 180 minutes each week, practicing under ADM. Assuming a game per week, he gets another 15-16 minutes of ice time in a game. Here's the money question: Why are USA Hockey and AHAI willing to fracture mite hockey in IL, by dictating approximately 5-10% of a child's total ice time? It makes no sense.