Aspen Junior Hockey sees growth from time spent with Finnish youth manager
Shaun Hathaway wanted to go outside the box. Hathaway, the executive director of Aspen Junior Hockey, had the funding as well as the help of USA Hockey. It was simply a matter of finding the best path to move beyond the typical and help pave a new way for hockey in Aspen.
That’s when he found Kalle Valiaho, one of the most prominent figures for youth hockey in Finland, which has long been known as one of the best nation’s for hockey in the world.
“It’s never happened where we had this international partnership,” Hathaway said. “To have the expert leading the Finnish program come over and help lead Aspen Junior Hockey, it simply was an incredible experience and I’ve learned more in this last six months than I have in my 20 years in this business.”
Valiaho, who is the manager of youth hockey for the Finnish Ice Hockey Association, arrived in Aspen in October, the start of a six-month position where he helped AJH find a new way to develop players. His stint in Aspen came to an end in late March.
“Hopefully people have enjoyed it as much as I have enjoyed being here. Hopefully I have been able to inspire people as much as I have been inspired here,” Valiaho said prior to leaving. “Two weeks later I would have already signed with FIHA and this wouldn’t have happened. So the timing was perfect.”
Timing had a lot to do with Valiaho getting to Aspen. For eight years leading up to joining forces with AJH, Valiaho had been a regional coach in Finland where he’d go from club to club working with the directors to find improvements for each. Only recently was he promoted to his position as the manager of Finland’s entire youth hockey program.
Had Hathaway gotten to Valiaho any later, he would have already signed a deal and been committed to FIHA, making it unlikely the Aspen partnership would have worked out. But Hathaway got there in the nick of time, and FIHA “showed me the green light,” letting Valiaho take the position in Aspen where he could still return after six months to his new role in Finland.
“I really appreciate that Finnish Ice Hockey Association gave me this opportunity or chance to come over and spend this five to six months in the states,” Valiaho said.
Valiaho has spent the past six months working with all age levels of AJH, including the Aspen High School program. The idea was to instill some of the ideas that make youth hockey in Finland such a powerhouse onto the Aspen players.
There was no better example of this than the boys’ peewee ‘A’ team, which struggled early in the season. Then, as the No. 4 seed in a four-team bracket, the team cruised to the playoff championship at a tournament hosted in Aspen.
“The puck possession, the domination that they displayed, it was amazing,” Hathaway said. “We gave kids the ownership of their development by forcing them to be creative, as opposed to telling them how to do it. They had to figure it out on their own. What was probably the biggest challenge for us is when kids are in charge of their development, you obviously need more patience with the process.”
Hathaway called it a “cultural shift in terms of how we develop” players. They moved away from your typical line drills, and tried to keep players moving during the entirety of practice. It wasn’t so much about drilling a concept into a kid’s head, but letting him or her figure out the process in his or her own way.
“We accomplished a lot,” Hathaway said. “I don’t think we were necessarily off track in terms of the long-term athletic development philosophy and the things we were trying to implement, but it was getting the buy in from the coaches as to how we implement that.”
Even with Valiaho returning to Finland, Hathaway has much in place to make sure the relationship between Aspen Junior Hockey and FIHA continues into the future. The hope is to create a “true system where kids do not have to leave” Aspen, starting from first-time players all the way to the U19 and U20 levels.
“Kalle and our relationship and connection will continue. We certainly will be bringing him back over here to take advantage of the skiing in Aspen,” Hathaway said. “It won’t be the last time he comes to Aspen. So really it’s exciting. To some extent, even though we are part of USA Hockey, we will have a niche and are part of FIHA.”
For Valiaho, what he will take back to Finland is Aspen’s sense of community, something that stood out to him during his six months with AJH.
“Aspen is a bit isolated, and I think that’s a strength. You can do things your way,” he said. “Aspen is quite a beautiful place to stay. Hopefully people really see the forest from the trees.”
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