Jack Blatherwick

Why do we send millions to USA Hockey?


By Jack Blatherwick
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

In four decades, USA Hockey (formerly AHAUS) has exploded in size from two paid employees in a one-room office to an ominous, giant bureaucracy with so many employees they’ve outgrown two huge, expensive buildings in Colorado Springs. They point to “growing the sport” as a major contribution, but of course, ‘growing’ means more revenue, not more quality.

Why is USA Hockey necessary? That is the question everyone should ask if they love this sport, because in Herb Brooks’ words, “Quasi-governmental monopolies are best at legislating mediocrity.”

That’s what they do BEST? Actually, they do some things well. The referee programs have resulted in more highly qualified officials. Sponsorship of teams in international tournaments is certainly a legitimate function.

The educational outreach to coaches contains valuable data about stages of child and adolescent growth and development, but for many experienced coaches this is common sense. Where independent, innovative coaches object is that indoctrination to the opinions of a committee in Colorado is a requirement for coaching, and the ‘modules’ or seminars come with additional fees. 

All of this begs the question, “What do we get in return for our annual fees?” Insurance? This is a tragic deception. The “catastrophic” insurance coverage (by the Minnesota State High School League as well as USA Hockey) is woefully inadequate to cover a catastrophe. Many will disagree with the overall implications of this article, but you better investigate this point before you are faced with horrific decisions you thought would not arise if you had “Catastrophic Insurance Coverage.”

Imagine if American football and basketball were required to send millions of dollars in player/coach fees to a national governing body. First, they would lose many athletes who couldn’t afford the fee. Secondly, an embarrassing amount of ‘administrative expense’ would go to an elite group in a faraway national office. Would this serve football better than keeping the money at home, using it to improve local coaching, and building facilities for the people who pay the tax?

If football fell into the hockey trap, they would be restricted by rules designed to keep some programs from ‘gaining an advantage.’ This is what Brooks meant by legislating mediocrity; because ‘striving to gain an advantage’ is what DEFINES competition and DRIVES motivation, learning, and creative coaching. 

A high school football coach in Smalltown,Texas, is NOT told by a governing body that his youth program must conform to one national model; that his athletes cannot play against a team that has not joined the monopoly; that he cannot have a scrimmage where coaches control the play instead of referees; or that the governing body will determine the length of his season.

I’m not saying these are all bad ideas – or that some should not be rules for local or state competition. However, there is no reason to pay tens of millions of dollars to a national or state governing body to appoint itself the expert. There are thousands of expert coaches in this country, and it is the height of arrogance for a small group in Colorado to tell them they cannot coach until USA Hockey determines that they are fit.  There is no other sport where this would happen.

I challenge anyone from USA Hockey to stand face-to-face with an experienced educator/coach and say, “I will tell you when you are fit to coach, because I know more than you.”
Freedom from central legislation and diversity of thinking is the very reason American football, from amateur to pro, is arguably the most successful sports enterprise anywhere. Diversity is the reason coaching creativity has improved their game each year, and will continue to do this forever. A football coach can’t afford to stand still; the competition would eat him up. Hockey coaches are required to conform to static rules that restrict change.

USA and Minnesota Hockey would like to limit the number of games, the amount of ice time, the nature of competition, the length of games, the length of seasons, competition against ‘maverick’ teams, the number of players on a team and the ability of a player to join a second team. They want to control offseason hockey, in-season choices, training protocols and other thoughts they’ll come up with in their next committee meeting.

That’s what committees do. They say, “It’s just advice.” But some control freak somewhere will eventually make rules, because he lies awake in fear that someone is not heeding his advice. 

Is this an exaggeration? I just read in USA Hockey’s propaganda, that an administrator was so enthralled with the ADM (Athlete Development Model) he said it should be a national requirement.

I repeat: Why do we pay USA Hockey tens of millions to legislate? No one ever asked for rules and requirements. It’s just what committee folks do to feel more ‘in control.’

Diversity and creativity are also responsible for improvements in training methods. Tens of thousands of researchers, entrepreneurs and coaches have a much better chance of independently discovering excellent new training protocols than one committee in Colorado.

USA Hockey’s coaching indoctrination program, called ADM, could easily lead coaches to assume it’s the ‘bible’ of childhood athlete development. Of course, there is no such ‘bible,’ and it is an exaggeration at best, to claim that the conclusions are warranted because of ‘substantial research.’ 

Here is the reality: The ADM (or the LTAD from which the ADM was taken) is based on someone’s opinion about observations that did not, in any way, test the hypotheses we are asked to accept. 

To use scientific terms (incorrectly) can intimidate and stifle creativity in tackling this most important question: How do we develop physical and mental skills of young athletes? Education would be a worthwhile function, and USA Hockey has spent substantial time to supply coaches with data about long term athlete growth and development patterns. 

But don’t make a greater mistake than the researchers who originally presented this data. Do not assume that your interpretation of the data is the only way to look at it; and therefore, require this for coaching certification. It’s easy to see how ‘legislating mediocrity’ also takes the form of required indoctrination, but all great achievements of human history resisted those official attempts.

The greatest safeguard against abuses of the monopoly in Minnesota is that high schools do not belong to USA Hockey. In Texas, a small group has gained control of the Texas Amateur Hockey Association and used their monopoly power to restrict the competitive options for organizations that compete too successfully against their own arena business. 

Conflicts of interest are common around the country, and USA Hockey backs them as only a monopoly can. Consider the incestuous procedure by which certain athletes are chosen to enter into the tryout process for national camps. This should be open to everyone who pays dues, but that’s not what monopolies do, because there is power in belonging to the club and rubbing elbows with the controlling elite. 

It drives them crazy in Colorado that Minnesota high school coaches are not under their control. But give the committees awhile, and we’ll have a rule that high school players are not eligible for national camp tryouts until their coaches are certified by USA Hockey.

They want total control, when they should have NONE. Education is appreciated. Promotion. Safety research. Organization and sponsorship of national teams. These are welcome services, but we don’t need restrictive legislation. Annual fees, amounting to tens of millions of dollars, feed the appetite of a giant monopoly that already has too much power to control coaches and limit the options of youngsters who have unlimited dreams. 

Why do we accept this?  What value does USA Hockey add to the experience?
Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info.