Saturday, September 17, 2011

National Youth Academy Project

The problems that the Czech Republic has had developing young players in recent years has been well documented on this site and elsewhere. IIHF.com's Jooeri Loonen examines the steps that the Czech Ice Hockey Association is taking to reverse that trend.

When Slavomir Lener speaks, hockey leaders in the Czech Republic listen. The veteran coach and Czech Ice Hockey Association coach supervisor has been very vocal in the past few years about the state of hockey in his home country, and it seems that Czech hockey is beginning to listen.

Michael Frolík (left) and Ondřej Pavelec are two young Czechs
that have bucked the trend and found success in the NHL and
internationally. Photo: Matthew Manor, HHOF-IIHF images.
In recent years Czech hockey has seen Extraliga teams focusing more on short-term success on the ice, mainly due to financial incentives. Operating on tighter budgets, there was no time for teams to have developmental seasons in which to build for the future.

The effects have been disastrous for Czech hockey. Hampered by a lack of ice time, juniors left for the North American junior leagues where they often faded among their American and Canadian peers before returning home disillusioned.

The Czech Republic had 21 players drafted in 2004, but the number sank to just three in 2009. The national U18 and U20 teams, previously accustomed to competing for medals, instead were fighting to avoid relegation from the top levels.

In order to bring this slide to a halt, the Czech Ice Hockey Association (ČSLH) had to come up with something to change the mentality of the clubs. As money and prestige matter, they decided to reward teams that took good care of their development centres. Nine clubs took on the challenge to be rated by the ČSLH and get compensated for their good efforts. In the end six teams passed the tests sufficiently and were officially given a star academy accreditation.

The various criteria needed for accreditation crossed all aspects of junior development. The ČSLH was not only looking into the on-ice facilities but also rating what the various clubs offer their juniors in terms of education and medical support, realizing that not every player can become a pro. Having players take classes next to their hockey activities ensures they will not be sidelined on the job market if they don’t make it to the pro ranks following their junior careers.

Other criteria to which the clubs were measured to had to do with the number of licensed youth coaches and the amount of international contacts that gave juniors the opportunity to play teams abroad.

In return for their investment, the association offers the teams a number of benefits. Not only will they receive financial compensation but they can also count on the experience of foreign coaches and their junior teams being protected against relegation.

“It offers these teams an opportunity to work with juniors on a long term strategy,” Lener said. “They will not have to worry about short term results.”

“Each team will get three coaches paid and offered by the ČSLH. Their impact will be immediate. It is important to harmonise training methods and style of play within the whole organization from the youngest juniors to the A-team.”

Two teams rated a near perfect score on all areas: HC Karlovy Vary and Bílí Tygři Liberec. Four others, HC Pardubice, Sparta Praha, HC Vítkovice and Czech second-tier team KLH Chomutov managed to be rated at least the minimum of 80%.

“All teams put in a lot of effort in order to be awarded,” ČSLH chairman Tomáš Král said. “Even the three teams that did not make the mark this time are in excellent condition to obtain one next season. For example, second tier Dukla Jihlava did not have enough qualified coaches but they were fine in most other aspects.”

Former Czech 1994 Olympian Pavol Geffert is the head of Sparta Praha’s junior department and also coaches a junior team himself. It is no surprise he’s delighted that his team has been recognized.

“Even before this project saw life, we complied with some of the new standards,” he said. “As soon as we could apply, the whole organization, ranging from team leader Petr Briža to all coaches, stood behind participating in the project. Being awarded not just looks good on paper but also gives us an edge to parents of young players who are looking for the best place to send their children to. They know the kids will be given good care at Sparta Praha.”

One of the areas Sparta Praha had to invest in was upgrading locker room facilities for their youth teams. It is required that these meet the same standards as those of the first team and therefore the team’s academy building will see a complete makeover this summer.

Geffert: “We’ll be setting up state-of-the-art facilities including a dormitory using smart cards. Also, a new junior team will be created that will play in the second-tier junior level. This should ensure we don’t lose the players that do not receive a lot of ice time in our top junior team and used to be surplus to requirement.”

The earlier mentioned educational part of the project is vital, according to Geffert. His team made arrangements with schools so the school schedule can be combined with the practice schedule on ice.

“This is a win-win situation as the player does not have to miss classes while on the other end we get a motivated player not having to worry about exams when practicing.”

The Sparta Praha youth chief admits his team struggled in the past collaborating with school directors, meaning players either missed practices or classes.

“In every top hockey nation such collaborations exist but in the Czech Republic it was somewhat neglected over the years. I am not in favour of the stereotype thinking that the less intelligent a person is, the better hockey player he has become. I even think the opposite is true.”

All six award-winning teams will get together frequently to share experiences and discuss their progress. For the Czech Ice Hockey Association this project will serve as one of the primary measures geared to stop the talent slide.

“The ČSLH Academy will have to become an appealing brand,” said Král. “It’s the first step for us to prevent 15 and 16 year old players to move abroad, by offering them a solid alternative at home.”

The 2011 NHL Entry Draft saw 10 Czech players drafted, a definite improvement over the previous years. Time will tell whether the increased number of Czech players drafted in 2011 was an exception, or just the beginning of a steady progress to numbers that both Czech hockey and the rest of the hockey world is used to.

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