Sweden’s successful development system helped spawn ADM
Sweden’s Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in the recent NHL draft, was just the first of six Swedes taken in the first round, a tribute to Sweden’s success in developing hockey players.
Most hockey fans are quite aware of Rasmus Dahlin, the top overall pick of the NHL draft held on June 22-23 in Dallas.
The Swedish-born defenseman is considered a generational talent. He’s expected to step right into the Buffalo Sabres’ lineup in 2018-19 and eventually become one of the best defensemen in the league.
And he was only the highlight of an outstanding showing by Sweden in the draft.
Dahlin was the first of six Swedish players taken in the first round. That ties the country’s record set in 1993 and equaled in 2009 and 2011. And he was only the first of 28 Swedes taken in the entire draft, a total that ties the record set in 2011. Only Canada (71) and the United States (55) had more players drafted this year.
That result is even more impressive when you consider that Sweden, with fewer than 10 million people, has less than 1/32nd of the population of the United States and a little over a quarter of the number of Canadians.
Sweden’s success in developing hockey players is no accident. It’s the continuing result of changes in how hockey players are developed there, ones that began in the early 2000s.
They are the same changes that have strongly influenced the American Development Model, a system used and endorsed by USA Hockey and its affiliates, including the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association. That approach has spurred a wave of rebellion among hockey associations, resulting in many Michigan teams leaving USA Hockey for the Amateur Athletic Union.
In the early 2000s, Sweden began to emphasize skill development in Youth hockey instead of wins and losses. It implemented many of the techniques ADM is built on:
- Different stations on the ice with drills that work on specific skating and puck-handling skills.
- Emphasis on the ability to play in small areas of the ice.
- Far more overall time devoted to practice than to games, particularly at the 13 and under levels.
“We looked at Sweden, we looked at Finland and we looked at other countries,” said USA Hockey ADM Regional Manager Bob Mancini, talking about Youth hockey development systems. “And we said, ‘What are the most important things that we can take from what they are doing? And what are the things in our culture that doesn’t lend itself to those changes?’ ”
One of the things in the Swedish system that certainly wouldn’t fit with American culture: no standings. For the past two years, standings have not been kept for hockey players under 13 in Sweden. Scores are kept during games but there is no written record of wins and losses. There are no tryouts and no real leagues either. The emphasis is on skill development, not wins and losses.
But most Americans demand at least a result from games. Who won? Who lost? What was the score? It is hard to imagine American parents – especially after paying for equipment and ice time – happily watching their 12-year-old hockey players in a scoreless game.
Not all Swedes are happy with the lack of scores either.
“It’s been a tough discussion back home,” said Swedish defenseman Calle Rosen, who split time between the Toronto Maple Leafs and their AHL affiliate the Toronto Marlies in 2017-18. He spoke to the publication The Athletic for a Nov. 30, 2017, story. “The kids are keeping track of their records themselves, so why not just have a normal standings? Let them compete. But I guess it depends how young you are.”
And Sweden does not have all the answers. Swedes have learned some things from Americans and Canadians that have allowed them to develop better hockey players.
"One of the most important things in becoming a successful development league is watching the way other countries improve their game, so I'd be lying to you if I said we didn't pay close attention to what Canada and the United States have done," Sweden Ice Hockey Association's director of youth development Tommy Boustedt said in a NHL.com story on Oct. 31, 2011. "Maybe we didn't do that enough. The main area we've looked into is body checking and goal scoring … and needless to say, we've looked into North American hockey a lot."
They also have learned to be more competitive.
"If you want to be on the elite level, you have to compete in everything you do from the beginning," Boustedt said in that same NHL.com story. "The best competitor ever was (Hockey Hall of Famer) Peter Forsberg. If we could take Peter Forsberg's mind and put it into all our talented players, that would be perfect. Being competitive is more important than skating fast or shooting hard.
"Let's face it, the word 'compete' was obsolete in this country,” he continued. “We haven't been in a war in 200 years, and we have a classic social democratic system that built this society, and to 'compete' has historically been a bad word."
According to Boustedt, having that competitive spirit in everything associated with Swedish hockey is what has changed the most.
Up until a little more than 10 years ago, there were no tryouts for Swedish Youth teams. And no player was cut.
“Until I was 14 (13 years ago), there were no ‘tryouts,’ ” said Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who won the Norris Trophy this past season as the NHL’s top rearguard, in a story for the Players Tribune. “If you’re born in O-vik (Ornskoldvik, Sweden, his home town), you play for MoDo or one of the other local teams. In fact, the Sedin twins” – Henrik and Daniel, who retired from the Vancouver Canucks at the end of the 2017-18 season – “and (former NHL star) Markus Naslund played for a team called Järved, on an outdoor rink. There are different levels, but you are never cut.
“When people talk about Swedish hockey, they often mention the ‘chemistry’ of the players. But really, it’s a total philosophy of community that starts when you’re young.”
That approach makes it much easier for players to enjoy themselves.
“The coaches I had during my time when I was a junior and when I was younger – they always let every guy play, and I think that’s what made hockey so fun, too,” Rosen said. “That was a big part.”
Here in Michigan, some form of the ADM principles are in practice in all of the associations across the state, according to USA Hockey and MAHA officials.
“All of the associations have embraced it at some level and a large number of associations are doing it at 8U and 6U programs,” Mancini said. “Some have full-ice 8U and 6U in conjunction with ADM practices.”
One of the core ADM principles is half-ice or cross-ice play for players 8 and under.
USA Hockey recognizes associations across the country that have embraced the ADM practices to specific levels by granting them USA Hockey Model Associations. The Michigan associations that have attained that designation are the Grand Traverse Hockey Association and the Kalamazoo Optimist Hockey Association.
KOHA Executive Director Frank Noonan says the ADM principles have greatly benefited the association’s players.
“The cross-ice ADM principles, which creates small-area games, really has prepared the kids for House and Travel hockey,” Noonan said. “I can’t say enough how much it has helped the kids in our association.”
MAHA President George Atkinson said the acceptance of the ADM is steadily growing in Michigan.
“I would say it’s getting more and more all of the time,” he said. “It’s in the upper age levels now (ADM training principles began at the 8U levels and have been gradually introduced to older age levels), I think we’re in year 10 …Probably now, more have accepted it … Now, the kids that started with it 10 years ago have been continuing doing the program.”
Atkinson also said that hockey has been a trailblazer in Youth sports when it comes to providing a smaller space – half-ice and cross-ice – in which younger children can play.
“Ten years ago, hockey was the only sport that was talking about it,” Atkinson said. “Now, just about every other sport has some kind of age-appropriate dimension model.”
Mancini says that the ADM could be even more effective in Michigan.
"The real problem we're having in the state of Michigan is that we don't have enough coaches who are directed to follow the full ADM," Mancini said. "The next step is to raise the number of coaches who embrace the entire model in their associations, like the Grand Traverse Hockey Association and Kalamazoo, who embrace it at an association level."