Development is more than just a word; it's a commitment to the process. Part of that process has to be a natural elevation to higher levels of play.
I feel that the sport of soccer is often kicking hockey's backside when it comes to developmental opportunities. USA Hockey has only the United States National Team Development Program to counter the academy programs offered by Major League Soccer clubs. Like the USNTDP's participation in the USHL, the MLS academy teams compete in a league that is overseen by the United States Soccer Federation. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy is hundreds of teams divided geographically and play at three different age levels.
In 2008 MLS altered rules to allow teams the first crack at signing players developed in their academy system. The benefits of that rule change are starting to be seen. Every MLS team is allowed to sign two homegrown players a season who will not count against the cap.
The rule has led teams to look towards the academy system with greater frequency for talent acquisition. They're investing more, bringing in more players, and subjecting those players to a professional environment earlier in their development - much like the rest of the world.
In 2014, Seattle's DeAndre Yedlin became the first MLS Homegrown player to compete in a World Cup.
The Boys' Academy is also having a meaningful impact on the Men's National Team and at the professional level. Nine of the eleven starters in the team's Kickoff Series win over Mexico were Academy products.
If MLS teams can operate such programs efficiently, why can't hockey?
Here in the United States, hockey's system of development has always been tied to the player's ability to pay for the process. It is my feeling that this is exactly where the National Hockey League needs to step in. Sure there is already NHL branded youth clubs across the youth platform, but the cost of participation is well outside the reach of most families. As a result, many prospects are never seen.
AAA travel leagues appear to be more about money and controlling monopolies than enhancing development. Why has USA Hockey not stepped in? Why are the affiliates able to limit competition and growth of the game instead of promoting it?
The AA level of pee-wee, bantam, and midget hockey is often dominated by prospects that should be at a higher level of play. When AAA is not an option (due to costs), coaches often suggest that prospects try to jump up an age level, thinking that playing against older players will make up the difference. In most cases the elevation does the trick.
Youth programs that develop a reputation for celebrating and facilitating player advancement will quickly discover how much easier replacing advancing players is going to be.
Is it time for the NHL and USA Hockey to take a long hard look at how far soccer development has moved, in such a short time-period, and implement a program that attempts to duplicate that success?
I think so.