Colorado Delays Squirt Tryouts in Favor of Six-Week Evaluation

Imagine you’re a first-year Squirt. As a Mite, you played with friends on evenly drafted teams for four years. You do a few hockey camps in the summer while playing soccer. Then, hockey season starts. You skate a few times to get ready, then show up for Squirt tryouts that last week of August (also the first week of school). You skate the first night, go home, check the website and guess what? You’ve been cut—after a coach looked at you for maybe 30 minutes. Is this any way to treat a 9-year-old? Colorado thinks not.

This year, the Colorado Competitive Youth Hockey League (CCYHL), which governs approximately 70 percent of hockey players in the state, changed the 10 & Under program in favor of the multi-sport athlete, reaping benefits for everyone involved: players, parents, coaches and hockey association directors.

How It Worked

Rather than holding Squirt tryouts at the same time as PeeWee, Bantam and Midget tryouts, the Squirts started a week later around Sept. 7. And rather than dive right into tryouts as usual, the associations focused on skills, drills, and small-area games for approximately five weeks. Associations then held tryouts the week of Oct. 4–7, with league games starting Oct. 15 and the regular season running through March 6 as usual.

During the six-month season, Squirts will still average three to four ice sessions per week and are allowed 45 games (plus playoff games). The practice-to-game ratio stays the same because of the emphasis on practices at the beginning of the season.

Reports from the Inside

While easing Squirts into tryouts in this way was primarily intended to give multi-sport athletes—something widely encouraged by USA Hockey—a chance to get their “hockey legs” under them before tryouts. But as we learned from talking to a USA Hockey representative and three local association directors, the later start and prolonged evaluation reaped major benefits. We talked to:

  • Joe Doyle, USA Hockey Manager for the American Development Model in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Districts plus Montana and Wyoming

  • Brian TenEyck, Littleton Hockey Association, Director of Hockey Operations Committee

  • John McKibbon, Director of Arvada Hockey Association

  • Matt Huckins, Boulder Hockey Club, Director of Hockey Operations

With Doyle’s experience across the state, the span of the Denver metro area covered by Littleton and Arvada, and the Front Range covered by Boulder, we think we captured a good picture of the new program.

Real Opportunity to Play Other Sports

According to USA Hockey’s Doyle, there are three reasons for the later start and new introductory period for Squirts: it creates an age-appropriate length for the hockey season, it allows kids to play multiple sports and it fosters retention. “The typical 9- or 10-year-old is on the ice from August through March, then encouraged to play in spring and summer leagues and participate in camps—because the first contact with their hockey association in the fall is tryouts. Kids play through the summer just to make a team. A healthy six-month season becomes closer to nine or 10 months and kids are getting burned out.” By starting with four to six weeks of skills and drills, kids who play other sports, “Had the fair chance to catch up,” says Doyle. This genuinely allows for USA Hockey’s position: That kids should play other sports.

McKibbon says parents in Arvada really appreciated the timing this year: “More than a handful of parents have really advocated for the later to start to finish up with soccer and football.” (Because soccer and football are especially popular in the area, he had already been working with those associations to try to prevent schedule conflicts.) Reinforcing retention, he adds, “More kids will choose to stay with the sport and we’ll get more multi-sport athletes to skate with this us in the winter. The other benefit, of course, is that some kids don’t skate in the summer and in the past they didn’t look as good as the others.”

Littleton’s TenEyck agrees that the new structure is more realistic for multi-sport athletes: “I liked giving the kids who had taken the summer off the chance to get their feet under them.” Boulder’s Huckins adds, “In the past, players were forced to sacrifice a fall sport to try to make a travel hockey team in a three-day period. This year, players could focus on their individual skills and hockey conditioning as they chose over a six-week period.”

Fair Time to Evaluate Kids

It almost goes without saying that four to six weeks of evaluation gives a clearer picture of each player than a few days or even minutes. According to Littleton’s TenEyck, the evaluation worked two ways: “The coaches had the chance to see all the kids, to really evaluate them against each other. And it gave kids a chance to be introduced to three of our five coaches.”

Although every hockey director we talked to admitted that some parents still complained about their player’s placement, the amount of evaluation time did help assure parents that players had a fair chance. “It made our lives very easy at Squirt tryouts in terms of handling complaints,” says TenEyck, “because we could talk about the amount of time involved and the number of coaches looking.”

Coach the Coaches

A longer evaluation time is not all about the players—it’s also about the coaches. “It gives the hockey director a chance to run practices, and gives coaches a chance to see how practices should be run. It’s a hockey school for the kids and for the coaches,” says Doyle.

Boulder’s Huckins mentioned this benefit as well. “Our hockey directors and skill directors had the chance to work with our 10 & Unders a couple of times a week. This would not have been the case in the past as we would have rushed them into a team environment. In my opinion, since our volunteer coaches and our players had the opportunity to work with professional coaches, we are leap years ahead of were we would be any other season.” Littleton’s TenEyck took advantage of the time to benefit coaches as well: “It was nice because we laid out the first three weeks of practice plans for the coaches.”

This time for working with coaches is key to player development as well says Doyle: “Whether a kid is an A, B, or C, they have a chance down the road if they’re given the same experiences—similar ice touches and quality coaching.”

So, How Did It Go?

Doyle says the program was very well-received in the state—in fact, so well received that “the next logical step is to take this to the PeeWee level” for all 12 & Unders. “The majority felt like it was the right thing to do,” Arvada’s McKibbon says. “For the first year, it went a lot smoother than I expected—part of that has to do with the commitment of local associations to do the same thing.” Littleton’s TenEyck adds, “It was good for Littleton Hockey, with the number of travel teams we have, to have four weeks to look at these kids really helped out. I’d like to see it again next year.”

The word on the street (or lobby or stands, as it were) varied depending on parents’ experience with hockey. Many first-year Squirt parents weren’t at all concerned about the new process since they’d never been exposed to the old process. Other parents—no doubt anxious to find out who the coaches, parents and players were that they would be spending the next five months with—thought the process was too long.

Every time I heard “I just wish they’d get it over with” and “It’s taking forever,” I’d share the reality of just six years ago when my older son was a Squirt: 10 kids out of 50 cut after the first day, their names posted on the web for all to see. I tell them how much I appreciate that next year my younger son will likely skate four to six weeks, attend the four-day tryouts during which players are “reassigned” (not “cut”!), and find out his team by seeing the last four digits of our phone number posted on the web. Because that is how to treat a 9-year-old.

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Kelly Anton with the Grow the Game Initiative for this story.
The Colorado Avalanche and are trademarks of the Colorado Avalanche Hockey Team, Inc. NHL and the word mark and image of the Stanley Cup are registered trademarks and the NHL Shield and NHL Conference logos are trademarks of the National Hockey League. All NHL logos and marks and NHL team logos and marks as well as all other proprietary materials depicted herein are the property of the NHL and the respective NHL teams and may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of NHL Enterprises, L.P. Copyright © 2008 Colorado Avalanche and the National Hockey League. All Rights Reserved.