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U.S., Finland team up in Columbus for unique hockey program

by Katie Foglia / Columbus Blue Jackets

In college, many students opt to spend a semester or summer abroad in a foreign country to learn a language, observe a different culture and grow overall as a person.

Because good coaches, like good students, are always trying to absorb new information in different ways, an exchange program similar to a study abroad is happening between USA Hockey and the Finnish Ice Hockey Association.

On Nov. 10-11, members from both USA Hockey and the FIHA visited Columbus to tour Nationwide Arena, observe practices and games, meet with Blue Jackets staff and executives, participate in a coaching roundtable, and run clinics with youth hockey players.

Scott Paluch, a USA Hockey Regional Manager for the American Development Model (ADM), was part of the American contingent that traveled to Finland last year to observe and learn how they’re doing things from a development standpoint, is now helping host the second part of the exchange program stateside.

“They’re meeting with clubs, they’re giving presentations on what they do over there," Paluch said. "We’re telling them about our club structure over here, and I think ultimately both sides are gaining a lot. It’s extremely beneficial.”

In his role with USA Hockey, Paluch focuses on optimal athlete development, concentrating on age-appropriate training utilizing long-term development principles.

Paluch said it made sense for the two governing bodies, USA Hockey and the FIHA, to collaborate on this program since they both approach youth coaching and development in a similar way.

About seven years ago, USA Hockey made a developmental change with how they approached coaching instruction with youth hockey. Paluch said the focus switched from competition-based to a more developmental-based theory with skills being at the forefront. The most crucial part of the experience, he said, was ensuring that kids are enjoying the program.

“We were curious as to what they were doing (in Finland), and it matched up really well with the whole different plan of attack we were trying to do,” Paluch said. "Our staff went over there last year, we traveled to clubs, we spent time with their national camp, and this year, we brought them back.”

Paluch was instrumental in hosting the coaches and executives from the FIHA as they observed the methods and practices in the U.S.

Columbus was one of four markets selected for this program along with Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit.

As one of the Finnish coaches who traveled to the U.S. as a part of the program, Pyry Lukkarila said one of the main things he is focusing on during his trip in the states is how the U.S. develops players' individual skills.

“The experience with USA Hockey has been great because, why we want to do this, we want to make the game better,” Lukkarila said. “We are not stealing ideas, we’re open of our ideas, they’re open of their ideas, and ultimately, Columbus is going to benefit from the youth program, junior program because we’re gonna run drills here and they’ve been in Finland so that’s the whole point: that the kids are getting the end result of this.”

“We try to stay open-minded and see what’s going on so we can take in all of what we see here,” Lukkarila added. “When we visit clubs (in other cities), we tell what we think that we do well, so that they might benefit from that knowledge and help their kids to be better hockey players so that the sport is going to be better.”

Blue Jackets VP of Marketing J.D. Kershaw said one of the reasons the program stopped in Columbus was because of the support the implementation of the American Development Model has received in the area.

“We as an organization have been a huge proponent of the ADM model from the time it was launched,” Kershaw said. “We were probably the first team to go cross-ice in between periods with the little kids and do it to support the ADM, so I think that’s probably part of it, too.”

The resources available in Columbus are top-notch and perhaps underrated, beginning with facilities and programs -- but coaching is a huge part of it. One of those coaches is Ed Gingher, the Program Coordinator and U-18 Head Coach of the AAA Blue Jackets.

"For me, it’s nice (that they came to Columbus) because they could’ve gone out east or west or some other places, but they wanted to see what the Blue Jackets have going on and what we have going on as well,” Gingher said.

“For us, any time you get your national operations like USA Hockey wanting to come in and bringing guests like that, it’s a tremendous opportunity for us to learn. It’s definitely something that I know our coaches and players have been excited about.”

One of those players is Trevor St. Jean, a member of the U-18 AAA Blue Jackets’ squad who moved to Columbus to focus on hockey and to get better instruction.

“I feel that our organization is on the rise right now,” St. Jean said. “We’ve had a lot of guys moving on the last few years and our team is really making a name for itself being in the top 10 in the country in the last two years. If we just keep that up, I feel like Columbus is getting on the map.”

Helping up-and-coming players like St. Jean (and all of the youth hockey players in the area) by providing them with the best possible coaching instruction is what the exchange program is all about.

“When we knew that the Finns were going to be coming back here, it was a very easy decision to bring them to Columbus,” Paluch said. “No. 1, the Blue Jackets have always be an unbelievable supporter of ours in all areas but, more specifically, when we started the ADM, the Blue Jackets stepped up.

“They’re very, very strong partners in our approach to bring development-based training to our coaches. It was just a really easy decision and I think both the AAA Blue Jackets and the NHL Blue Jackets are really eager to learn and be long-term partners in youth hockey."

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