Shaun Hathaway was executive director of Aspen Junior Hockey when he made an unprecedented move in 2016 to collaborate with the Finnish Ice Hockey Association (FIHA) to combine the American and Finnish development models for the Leafs organization.
Some aspects of the Finnish model were already present in the American model, but Hathaway wanted to take it a step further by adopting more of the Finnish philosophy and learn what made its program so successful.
Four years later, he’s spearheading another collaboration with Finland. As hockey director for Team Colorado, Hathaway wants to implement more of the Finnish development model throughout all levels across the state and he hopes a new partnership between the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) and FIHA will produce results.
CAHA, with backing from USA Hockey, becomes the first statewide governing body in North America to utilize the model and is set to roll out the plan this fall.
“We’ll have the opportunity to eventually be able to get the Finnish program, Finnish administrators and coaches to disseminate their information directly [to a] state affiliate,” said Hathaway, who added that the new program is similar to the one he used in Apsen but with an extra layer of teaching both practices.
CAHA President Randy Kanai called the partnership a win-win.
“It’s kind of a two-way street, so whatever we can offer to Finland, we’re happy to offer,” Kanai said. “From Finland’s side back to us, it’s gaining knowledge with what the development model is and the success of it, and how they implement it. Hopefully, some of their thoughts and ideas begin to take hold with some of our coaches.”
Part of the program will involve sending American coaches to Finland for a period of time.
Hathaway’s relationship with the Finnish model began when Kalle Valiaho landed in Aspen while on sabbatical from his work in Vierumaki, Finland, where he is the FIHA youth manager. Valiaho and Hathaway went to work on combining the American and Finnish developmental models.
“Kalle came over and worked with us, and [it was] just six months of amazing learning for me,” Hathaway said. “And with that, we ended up with a partnership.”
The alliance continued through the years, with a different student-coach coming from Finland to Aspen each season to help the Leafs expand training under the model.
There are only a handful of differences between the American and Finnish models, but the biggest is philosophical. While the American model emphasizes program success in addition to player development, its Finnish counterpart focuses more on a player’s individual progress and improvement over time than team results. It places an importance on station-based practices where there’s a lot of movement and an emphasis on skating, Hathaway said.
“I think culturally, that’s just a big difference,” he added. “To get our program directors and coaches here to understand how important skill development is at the younger age and understanding the age-appropriate piece.”
As the model is introduced to more people, it’s still being modified and given new additions as Colorado Hockey’s relationship with FIHA progresses.
“It’s really another layer of education, and another layer of getting directly to the source of Finland,” Hathaway said.
Getting Aspen parents on board with the plan wasn’t easy — Hathaway cited America’s competition-driven culture as one reason for their reluctance to embrace the model — but CAHA was more receptive for a simple reason: Finland’s model gets results. For example, 49 Finnish skaters made NHL clubs for the 2019-20 season, including the Carolina Hurricanes’ 22-year-old Sebastian Aho, who is already turning into a league superstar.
“Fins are doing something right,” Kanai said. “They’ve got so many players in the NHL at this point.”
CAHA will begin implementing the model in September with some basic programs and instruction to get players and coaches up to speed on how it will work and differ from the traditional American model. Teams will be encouraged — but not required — to adopt the system.
“We’re going to be setting consistent training webinars this year where we’ll have Finnish coaches, Finnish administrators on the call, and we’ll basically be disseminating best practices to the rest of the state,” he said. “So other program directors and coaches around the state will have an opportunity to learn what Finland is doing and what’s giving them so much success.”
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