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Jr. Sharks program bigger than ever, yet retains strong focus on development

 

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The number of kids playing hockey wearing San Jose Jr. Sharks sweaters was higher this season than it’s ever been.

The Bay Area’s top youth hockey program boasted a whopping 29 teams. The Jr. Sharks had an estimated 400 kids playing travel hockey, 500 playing in-house and about 400 more playing high school hockey – and that’s not to mention their adult hockey program, which is the largest in the country.

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But even as they’ve ballooned in size, the Jr. Sharks haven’t taken their eye off the puck in terms of achieving their goals, and it’s all about player development.

“We have lots of successes to hang out hats on,” said Jon Gustafson, the vice president of Sharks Sports and Entertainment. “We were recently acknowledged by the Positive Coaching Alliance as it relates to our leadership and impact, and that’s something that’s pretty special to us.

“We’re blessed with great coaches, and at the end of the day, coaching is what makes your hockey club. We’ve been fortunate to have a great core of coaches, and we have a number of new ones coming in for next year that we’re very excited about. Curtis Brown, Tyler Shaffar and Mike Janda are doing a great job as it relates to the coaching staff.”

The foundation of the Jr. Sharks’ philosophy is USA Hockey’s American Development Model (ADM), a standard that was officially put in place about five years ago, but that the program has essentially followed for a decade or more.

“The club has really embraced the ADM model (age appropriate training),” said Brown, the director of the Jr. Sharks and a 13-year NHL veteran. “Now that we’re starting to see a generation of kids who have experienced the ADM model, the result is twofold – players have a higher skill set at an earlier age, and kids who try hockey stay in the sport because the activity and enjoyment levels are higher than in most other sports.”

Added Shaffar, the Jr. Sharks’ hockey manager: “Whereas five years ago, people were questioning why we were doing shared practices or playing cross-ice, it’s now accepted that this is what’s best for players’ development. Our coaches are getting better at teaching it, too. The misconception is that ADM is all station-based practice and there’s no teaching of hockey development or systems. I think we’re learning how to balance the two.”

Like many programs, the Jr. Sharks are always searching for the right balance between a focus on development and winning. The Jr. Sharks’ 13U AAA team won a state championship this season, the 19U AA girls team won a Pacific District title, and a handful of their other teams were still playing deep into the postseason.

jr_sharks_imageFor years, Shaffar said, the knock on the Jr. Sharks was that they developed players but didn’t win. That’s not necessarily the case anymore.

“Change is difficult, and the process needs to be followed,” Shaffar said. “It takes time, and we are confident our players and families will see results. Winning is a byproduct of doing things correctly, and we are seeing this.”

To measure success in that department, the Jr. Sharks look at the number of players that continue on to play at higher levels after leaving their rinks. According to the program’s website, the Jr. Sharks have sent 59 boys players on to junior hockey, 61 to college hockey and 13 to the professional ranks. On the girls side, 48 players have moved on to play collegiately.

“You can’t tell people that you’re about development if you don’t graduate players on to the next level,” Brown said. “However, the focus can’t just be on the older players aging out – it has to be across the club. You want to have those tough decisions internally at tryouts for Squirt, Pee Wee, Bantam and Midget levels. We really have to focus on every area and stage of a player’s development because when you properly place players, that’s where the enjoyment, confidence and overall development really take off.

“When players go through our club, age out and have an opportunity to stay in hockey, wherever that may be, for sure that’s a win for us. However, it’s not just about the players that go to college or the pros – we want to develop the individual as much as the player, and the sport of hockey is a great tool to do just that.”

The leaders of the Jr. Sharks also feel strongly that the success of their girls 19U AA team is reflective of their approach yielding results – both in terms of winning and development.

The squad won the Pacific Districts championship on March 5 and is heading to USA Hockey Youth Nationals April 6-10 in suburban Detroit. They won in dramatic fashion, too, giving up a 4-2 lead in the second period to the Alaska All Stars – who they had lost to in the tournament’s opening game – and then getting a goal four minutes into overtime from Evelyne Blais-Savoie to send them on to nationals.

Beyond wins and losses, the team has produced players who will continue to play hockey at the college level. For the first time, coaches organized a trip last fall for players to visit colleges all over the East Coast. As a result of the effort, three of the team’s high school seniors have committed to play Division III college hockey next season or have offers in place – Sarah Takahashi (Wesleyan), Olivia Wilburn (SUNY Cortland) and Theresa Chickles (Buffalo State). Two others are weighing opportunities – Ally Stout (SUNY Canton or Morrisville State) and Emily Burke (considering a commitment to SUNY Potsdam). Best of all, they’re all homegrown players who came up through the Jr. Sharks system.

“It’s a great feeling to see the girls move on to the next step,” said Bobby Long, the head coach of the Jr. Sharks’ 19U girls team. “I think it shows that we’re producing some pretty good hockey players and we’re able to do it by keeping them in the program. They’re not leaving like they’ve done in the past.”

Added Brown: “They stayed home in California, which is contrary to some people’s thoughts on development, and now they get to pursue their dreams of playing hockey while going to school. We are thankful both that they stayed and for their upcoming opportunities”

Gustafson said he’s pleased to see Jr. Sharks teams raising banners and bringing home trophies, but he’s primarily concerned with providing a quality hockey experience to as many kids as possible, which naturally helps them develop not only as athletes but as human beings.

“It seems like these days, people put an even higher price on winning, which I don’t agree with,” Gustafson said. “My global perspective is really the number of kids we have playing hockey, and making sure they have a smile on their faces. It’s one of the few sports that is really a lifelong sport and people can play until they’re 70 or 80.

“The game does so many different things for you. Certainly, everybody likes to win, but it’s not the be all and end all for us.”

Looking toward the future, the Jr. Sharks and their leadership have plenty to be excited about.

“We’re not really a non-traditional market anymore,” said Brown. “But we’re still in our infancy as far as seeing kids move along. If we stay on this path with age-appropriate training and skill development, I’m excited to look back in 10 years and see the list of where are they now.”

Photo/Amanda Lize

— Greg Ball