When it comes to participation numbers in youth hockey, “dwindling” is not where one wants to be when it comes to word association. And that’s where Norwood found itself a few years ago, watching as its returning mite population threatened to dip into single digits. That’s also when things started turning around – even as conversations sprung up around the topic of merging with another program.
Norwood Youth Hockey’s president, Bill Naumann, had other plans. Bigger plans. And, for many a hockey program, almost unthinkable plans. Naumann, a former Nugget and Norwood High School player himself, charted a new course for growth.
“I'm a competitive guy. I said, ‘We're going to show you how to turn this thing around,’” he recalled recently. “’We're not merging with anybody. We're going to grow this program. And it's worked out.”
In the five years since, through the 2016-17 season, Norwood, a town program without a rink, had grown its ranks by 160 players. The fruits of the program’s labor were recognized with Mass Hockey’s “Excellence in Growth” award, and Naumann has been recognized for his creative approach to fostering that growth.
Going back those five years, Naumann, a self-professed “town guy” whose four kids played nearly every sport Norwood had to offer, felt he had to fundamentally change what Norwood was offering prospective hockey players and their parents. So he set out to change it by creating new strengths for a town program.
Go Cross-Ice with Mites
At a USA Hockey symposium where Roger Grillo served as a speaker, Naumann saw where the national governing body was headed. Looking at the American Development Model and cross-ice programs, he pointed Norwood’s offerings at the youngest level in that direction. At the time he stepped in at Norwood, they were still full-ice. They made the switch.
Out with full-ice, in with cross-ice. Just like that, at the youngest level, Norwood was done with full-ice hockey. Not that there weren’t growing pains. There were defections (the would-be 11 returning mites were offered the option of trying out for a full-ice squirt team, and most of them took him up on it) and there was pushback.
“We had pushback from the traditional hockey people,” Naumann said. “But the ADM, you talk about keeping a kid’s attention. You're going from station to station and moving around, and they're all having a blast and the parents are, like, ‘It's great.’ If they're not a hockey person or they’re a 6- or 7- or 8-year-old, they just think this is how it is, and they love it.”
Naumann was casting a wider net.
Seek Broader Appeal
The Boston suburbs are awash in programs catering to what parents and players might hope are elite-player programs. Naumann understands they’re in his backyard. But he also understands the obvious strengths of his own program.
“What's the best thing for the program?” he asks. “If it's not the best thing for Johnny, who is a superstar, we might lose Johnny. But, if you cater to that, you'll lose so many others. This is what we offer. [The other programs] are out there, and we know we’re competing with them and that parents could leave. It is what it is. Best of luck to you and best of luck to your kids.”
See Soccer’s Pitch
While American soccer players may not be advancing to the elite professional ranks at the same rate as American hockey players, it’s hard not to notice soccer fields teeming with kids on Saturday mornings and afternoons in the fall. When you’re running a youth hockey organization with its numbers trending downward and you believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that hockey is the very best sport for a kid to play, as Naumann does, you tend to notice these sorts of things.
“You go to the soccer field and there are 150 7-year-old kids playing soccer,” Naumann says. “We [needed] to shorten the season, make it affordable and make it convenient.”
Yes, the season is shorter.
The Nuggets season is something that much more approximates a season on the calendar – rather than spanning so many of them. It’s 20 weeks a year at the youngest levels, with two ADM practices and a game in the Town Line League per week for a total of 60 times on the ice beginning in November.
Yes, it’s more affordable.
“We're catering more to the masses,” says Naumann. “We're keeping hockey affordable for those kids who want to try it, and we want to try to do it without breaking the wallet of the parents.”
Yes, there is a convenience factor – as convenient as can be without a town rink and ice time at a premium, particularly for players at the younger ages. Norwood keeps ice time at nearby facilities at reliable times.
“The program is starting to grow because it's affordable, it's convenient, and we're getting those nontraditional hockey families,” Naumann says.
The program started to grow almost immediately.
Drown the Alphabet Soup
Norwood also did away with the divvying up of its own talent at the younger levels. No more Mite A, B, C or AA or AAA.
“These kids are 7- and 8-years-old,” says Naumann. “When they're playing soccer, are they breaking them up to put the eight best kids on one team? They mix them all in. Even someone who’s new, they'll catch up.”
Norwood has seen dozens of meetings focusing on the idea of a rink for the town. Considering Naumann has been having this conversation since his son, now a sophomore in college, was in mites, he remains hopeful that a rink is a possibility.
“My motivation is just to get as many kids as possible to try the sport,” he says. “It's a great sport. It's the ultimate team game. We're at the point now where we can’t really grow the program without a rink. And I’m working on that. The work has been done. The plans are drawn up. People say to me, ‘You're going to do all this work and none of your kids will ever set foot in the rink.' I tell them I still have a 10-year-old.”