Fortunately for the Anaheim Jr. Ducks, Lady Ducks and The Rinks’ in-house programs, the international trade wars don’t extend to hockey.
The organizations recently had a visit from two regional coaches from the Finnish Ice Hockey Association (FIHA) as well as USA Hockey’s Ken Martel, a California native who is the technical director for the American Development Model as well as the state’s regional manager, and Heather Mannix, a USA Hockey instructor.
The two Finnish coaches – Sami Nuutinen and Jukka Wallis – visited a handful of youth hockey organizations during an exchange trip with USA Hockey. They spent three days in Orange County, meeting with coaches, observing – and at times leading – practices and providing feedback.
“Ken called and asked if we’d like to host them. It was great having them here,” said Craig Johnson, the Jr. Ducks’ director of coaches. “Our coaches learned a lot from them.”
USA Hockey (USAH) and FIHA have developed a strong relationship over the past five years, and Martel and other officials from USAH have gone on coaching exchanges since 2014.
“Our teams compete at the international level, but in the youth space we share a lot of information because we have the same goal of growing the sport,” Martel said. “They’re one of the best hockey-playing countries in the world.”
The Fins’ success is remarkable given their pool of players is roughly the same as the state of Michigan’s, Martel said. But that hasn’t stopped them from winning gold at the World Junior Championships three times since 2014 and the World Championships twice since 2011.
“They do true player development,” Martel said. “They’re so much more patient with their players.”
Nuutinen, a one-time Edmonton Oilers draft pick, and Wallis, who has worked for FIHA for more than 20 years after getting a degree in coaching and working as a local hockey director, were a valuable resource, said Jr. Ducks coaches.
“I enjoyed meeting and listening to them,” said Jean Labbe, who coaches Squirt and Mite teams for the club. “They emphasized a fun factor with everything we do.
“They liked our Mite practice, but they said the older players stood around too much. It made me rethink what I do at 10U. I’ve made some adjustments to my practices as a result.”
The Jr. Ducks, Lady Ducks and The Rinks programs have been recognized as Model Associations by USAH. That means they’re committed to implementing age-appropriate training for players in accordance with USAH’s American Development Model.
“The Fins noted some real strengths with the club,” Martel said. “The size of it is far beyond anything that exists in Finland.
“They acknowledged the care of the leadership of the organization, and they thought Rick Hutchinson has done an outstanding job with The Rings’ programs.”
Communication and support were emphasis points during the visit on Oct. 28-30, particularly because of the amount of teams and players within the programs.
“They emphasized continuing to look at how to make coaches even better, how to develop coaches as well as players,” Martell added. “In Finland they stress education and mentoring.”
Jr. Ducks 16U AAA coach Alex Kim, also the club’s director of player personnel, volunteered to let Nuutinen and Wallis run one of his practices.
“That way I could see some new ideas,” Kim said. “It was interesting to see it from a different perspective. It also was good for the players to hear another voice. They spent a lot of time on small-area games, something they stressed is very important.”
Nuutinen and Wallis also held an in-depth presentation for Jr. Ducks, Lady Ducks, Rinks and Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League coaches.
“A very important component of it was that fun should be first,” Kim said. “Don’t lose sight of why kids play the game, or why any of us is involved with the game. It’s a fun game.
“It’s good for us as coaches to get out of our comfort zone and discover and explore new ideas.”
FIHA visits various regions within USAH, and it’s not out of the question it will send coaches to the West Coast again.
“The visit was designed for the Fins to see how a larger club operates,” Martel said. “The scale provides some challenges as well as benefits, and they thought the Ducks are doing a really good job.”