MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Amateur Hockey Association is adopting a new approach this winter that MAHA officials hope will encourage more young skaters to pick up hockey sticks.
MAHA will create the Middlebury Hockey League (MHL), which will be based at the Memorial Sports Center and offer kids a chance to play in and practice for a full hockey schedule without the travel that the sport has typically demanded.
MAHA member and Middlebury Union High School boys’ hockey coach Derek Bartlett said MAHA and most programs have usually offered A and B travel teams at the sport’s different age levels, but not rink-based local leagues.
The change should make it easier for kids to participate, and — without the expense and time of travel — easier for their families to support them, Bartlett said.
“We’re looking at attracting more kids, just to play the game of hockey, without having to jump in all the way, so to speak, and be traveling on a travel team,” he said. “What we’ve proposed will give kids a chance to break into hockey and see if it’s something they like to do and would like to continue in the future.”
MAHA director of coaching John Thompson said the extra practice time will also allow less experienced kids a better chance to learn the sport, as opposed to long drives to other rinks for 15 minutes of ice time during one game, during which novice players also tend not to see much of the puck.
“He’s not really playing hockey, he’s just chasing it around,” Thompson said. “He doesn’t ever progress enough playing that way to be able to play with everybody.”
Bartlett said the combination of more ice time with comparable players and more practice time will give novice players a better shot to learn hockey.
“That’s another piece. One is to get more kids to play the game, but another is once we get those kids, let’s really focus on skill development and not so much just driving three hours for the sake of a game,” he said.
Thompson said what MAHA plans is based on a template created by USA Hockey.
“It’s a system in which USA Hockey would like to see kids trained. Less travel and more community play is actually part of that directive,” he said.
The MAHA plan calls for at least two divisions of four teams each, with games played on Wednesday and Friday nights, and either two or three practices a week per team. Coaches would still select travel teams to play in weekend tournaments, while those not selected for yearlong travel teams could play in the B level of MAHA’s own year-end Skip Brush tournament, and possibly in B brackets of other tournaments. Travel players would also play on MHL teams.
“Whether you’re on the travel team or not, everyone participates in the MHL,” Bartlett said. “We can have a healthy competitiveness and talk about it at school the next day. We want to keep standings and publish them ... and we want to find sponsors for each team.”
The MHL’s Minor League division would have younger boys’ players — Squirts and Jamboree Mites — and under-12 girls’ players. Under-14 girls’ players and older boys’ players — Bantams and Peewees — would play in a Major League division. A House League for under-8 skaters is also in the works. Each league would have end-of-the-year playoffs.
MAHA already has almost enough skaters to make the plan work, but would need to recruit more from all corners of the county by the time September registration rolls around.
“Hopefully, with the attraction of new players, we’ll be able to field at least four teams in each division,” Bartlett said. “Our goal is anywhere from 10 to 20 new players. I think that would be a great start.”
Bartlett said he and Thompson see potential skaters every time they go to watch the Middlebury College team play.
“You go to a college hockey game on a Friday or Saturday night, and you see the number of kids running around that facility,” Bartlett said “And it’s like, ‘Wow, why is that kid not playing hockey? He’s at a college game, and he’s into it. What’s the reason?’ And the reality of it is it’s been the financial piece and it’s been the time commitment as far as travel.”
Currently, MAHA charges $500 for a year of hockey for most programs, and less for first-year Mites players. Those costs won’t change, Thompson said, but the overall financial picture will for families who won’t have to travel and buy food on the road every weekend.
“The cost-savings for the family will really be the travel,” he said.
MAHA will also have to recruit coaches to make the MHL work, but Bartlett does not foresee that as a problem.
“There are at least a half-dozen guys who have graduated in recent years either from high school or college that are in the area, but financially they can’t afford to travel on ... a weekend,” he said. “We’re hoping that will attract some of the younger guys who have played in the program to come back and help out and do a little coaching.”
Another recruiting issue can be dealt with similarly.
“We’re also hoping to attract referees the same way,” Thompson said.
Thompson and Bartlett said MAHA has seen a drop in skaters in recent years that they hope the MHL can reverse, and Bartlett said he could foresee other benefits.
“We’d like to get the numbers back up. And obviously it could have a positive effect on the high school program down the road,” he said. “But it also would mean if the numbers are there that MAHA might be able to offer a Midget team as well, and that would be huge, because then the kids who live out of district would have a place to play competitive hockey as teenagers.”
Andy Kirkaldy is at email@example.com.