Former AJH director Shaun Hathaway takes Finland relationship to state level |

Former AJH director Shaun Hathaway takes Finland relationship to state level

Philosophically, youth hockey in Finland is approached much differently than in the United States. And for former Aspen Junior Hockey executive director Shaun Hathaway, trying to sell the Finn methodology to the local club coaches and parents was difficult.

Now the director of Team Colorado, Hathaway plans to bring the partnership AJH had with the Finnish Ice Hockey Association (FIHA) to the rest of the state’s club teams.

“Finland truly is leading the world in terms of best practices and some of the most up-to-date research,” Hathaway said. “The hard part was trying to get our coaches to embrace it, to get our parents to embrace it, and I think having it at the state level where we’re now going to be dealing directly with hockey directors and programs, it will have more of an impact and will be less trying to convince the parents, and specifically the coaches, that this is groundbreaking information.”

Hathaway first brought FIHA to Aspen for the 2016-17 hockey season, when Finland’s youth hockey manager, Kalle Valiaho, spent the winter here sharing ideas and helping train young Aspen Leaf players. A year later was the start of a planned 10-year relationship that would bring in Finnish student-coaches to Aspen each winter, something it’s done each of the past three seasons.

This same partnership is now moving statewide, as FIHA recently formed what they are calling a “collaborative partnership” with the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA), with support of USA Hockey.

“With Shaun working with us at the state level, it was just a natural evolution of the program to bring it to the state as well,” said CAHA president Randy Kanai. “Just watching what’s happened the last 3 or 4 years since Shaun has been doing it in Aspen, there is no question. When Shaun brought it to the state level, it was a unanimous thumbs up.”

Considering the state of the world among the novel coronavirus pandemic and other logistical hurdles of taking this partnership statewide, this coming winter won’t include any coaching swaps like the Aspen program had. Instead, it will mostly be a series of webinars on many different topics that will be available to the state’s club programs, including AJH, should it participate.

The hope is that by the second year of the statewide partnership, CAHA will be able to physically bring in Finnish coaches for the season, and possibly send some American coaches to Finland.

Clubs are by no means required to adapt to the Finnish model, but may choose to take what pieces they want and apply them to their own programs.

“We’ll continue to grow the program as it evolves over the course of the next couple of years,” Kanai said. “It’s always an uphill battle with our coaching staffs … the majority of people are old school, right? They think the old school way is the best way and I’m convinced, especially at the younger age levels, smaller ice surfaces are much better for skill development.”

Both Hathaway and Kanai agreed the key to making the relationship work is overcoming those philosophical differences. It starts with the competitive mindset — the Finns focus more on skill development as opposed to competing at the youth levels — and exactly how to implement that on ice. More and more, Finland is using half-ice or cross-ice play with children 10-and-under instead of skating the full length of the rink.

And they aren’t just doing this for practices, but actual in-season competitions.

“If you do that over here, it would be blasphemy to have a game that doesn’t look like the NHL, that doesn’t look like it does on TV,” Hathaway said. “I kind of liken it to a football player, a 10-year-old, playing on a 100-yard field for football. To modify that field and to have that player play on a much narrower field and a much shorter field, that helps all the athletes as opposed to just the fastest kids that can run around the end and score all the touchdowns.”

Despite a relatively small population of about 5.5 million — roughly the same as Minnesota, which has produced more NHL players than any other state — Finland is one of the world’s hockey powerhouses, along with Canada, Sweden, Russia and the United States. While hockey is considered the favorite sport among Finns in terms of audience — similar to football or baseball in the U.S. — Hathaway largely credits their unique approach to youth training for their international success.

On top of directing Team Colorado and coaching a AAA bantam team out of Colorado Springs, Hathaway was recently named the ADM coordinator for Colorado. ADM, or American Development Model, is what USA Hockey uses for its long-term development plans in youth hockey, which it filters down through its affiliate club programs, like in Aspen.

AJH currently is in the late stages of finding a new director after deciding earlier this spring to move on from Hathaway, who had led the program the past seven years.

“If I can utilize my new role as ADM Colorado coordinator to help Aspen out and the new director they hire, that would be a win-win,” Hathaway said. “It makes sense for USA Hockey and Colorado and will certainly keep things going and hopefully Aspen will be involved in the future, as well. That’s my hope, because there is definitely a lot of benefit. But to have this go to the entire state, what a tremendous opportunity.”

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