September 20, 2012

Mass Hockey's Kevin Kavanagh a man with a plan

By NEHJ Staff

Youth hockey in the commonwealth of Massachusetts finds itself at a distinct crossroads on the eve of the 2012-13 season.

Kevin Kavanagh (Duxbury, Mass.), who was the manager of membership development at USA Hockey, was named the new executive director of Mass Hockey to serve more than 50,000 members in the organization. (Photo: Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

The sport is as popular as ever, thanks to a significant bump delivered by the Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup championship in 2011. But youth hockey faces numerous challenges, including issues surrounding access, financial obstacles, a long six-month season dictated by leagues and not parents, debate over development models, and the spiraling growth of elite clubs and rogue programs that threaten the time-honored town model.

To address those concerns, Massachusetts Hockey, one of USA Hockey’s larger affiliates, has created the position of executive director, the affiliate’s first full-time staff position. Last spring, Mass Hockey tabbed Kevin Kavanagh — a native of Duxbury, Mass., and former USA Hockey manager of membership development — to fill the post.

“Hiring an executive director will really move our organization into the new age, and really grow hockey in the state,” said Keri-Ann Allan, president of Mass Hockey. “Last year, we had 45,000 registered players, and now we’ve got roughly 50,000. To cater to this number of people in the best way possible, we really need to have a full-time staff member.”

Allan said Kavanagh has three primary goals:

1. Fundraising to rein in program costs, 2. Building stronger bonds with member programs, and 3. Bridging the gap between rink-owned leagues. Pat Kelleher (Belmont, Mass.), USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of development and Kavanagh’s former boss, said Mass Hockey got the right man for the job.

“Mass Hockey has gone through some recent changes, and they’re looking to do some things, bigger and better,” Kelleher said. “From the USA Hockey perspective, we’re asking our association and affiliate leaders to do more to grow the game, and structure it under the American Development Model. With the size of Massachusetts, and the amount of players, it’s a great opportunity for Mass Hockey first, and for Kevin second, to continue the upswing of hockey in Massachusetts.”

To learn what the new executive director envisions for Mass Hockey, New England Hockey Journal recently asked him a few pointed questions. Here is an abridged version of that conversation.

NEHJ: Executive director of Mass Hockey is a new position. Why was it necessary?

Kavanagh: “The need has probably been there for a while. Massachusetts is one of the larger affiliates in USA Hockey. Right now the membership base is over 50,000, probably closer to 54,000 by the end of this year. That’s a lot of people we need to communicate to and oversee their hockey experience. We need to be proactive. We have an extremely good, strong volunteer base. But as volunteers, they have real jobs that their livelihoods depend on, so what they can put into youth hockey is somewhat limited at times. That’s not a knock on the people who’ve been doing it; some say they do their real job just so they can be allowed to do their hockey job. But there’s a need to augment what goes on.”

NEHJ: Executive director is a broad title. How would you define it?

Kavanagh: “I’m going to work with the volunteers to oversee the day-to-day operations of the business, while also taking on some new tasks that will allow for a strong hockey program to be front and center in Massachusetts. One of the things we’ve never done before here at Mass Hockey or at the state level is generating revenue. I also think Mass Hockey needs to do a much better job of creating a better communication plan, letting members know what our benefits are and having them understand what Mass Hockey is here to do.”

NEHJ: How did your USA Hockey experience prepare you for the job?

Kavanagh: “I would not be in the position I am today without that experience at USA Hockey. There are a lot of great things going on at USA Hockey, with the American Development Model (ADM), and moving checking to the Bantam levels. Those are all being done for the good of the game, much to a vocal minority’s decision that they don’t like these things. These programs are being done with the best interests of all of our kids. A better skilled group coming up through the Pee Wee ranks will allow us to produce better players down the road, and keep other players in the sport longer.”

NEHJ: What are the major assets in place at Mass Hockey that you hope to build on?

Kavanagh: “We’ve got such a strong leadership group that has been invested in this sport for many years. That’s the biggest asset I see. But it’s not just Mass Hockey. The Boston Bruins have been extremely committed to growing the game for the past few years. The Bruins are doing a great job bridging that gap to generate a lot of interest in the sport and create opportunities for kids to play. They have a lot of youth programs that they work with throughout the state that allow kids to get into the sport.”

NEHJ: What are the major obstacles you see holding the sport back? Clearly, the numbers have seen a nice little Stanley Cup bump, which is great, but that bump doesn’t necessarily resolve long-standing issues?

Kavanagh: “The two biggest barriers to entry into the sport are cost and commitment. There’s the myth of the 4 a.m. practices. They don’t happen. There are times when a high school team may end up taking ice before they go to class, and there are still some early ice times, but it’s certainly not the rule, and it’s not for the 8-and-under kids. We need to break down some of those misconceptions. And we need to let people know that hockey doesn’t have to be a $7,500-a-year sport. It can be affordable. You can play locally. We need to continue to create programs that allow families to do that. That’s what’s going to bring new families into the sport. One of the challenges that I look to try and accomplish early on is to make sure that our local associations are offering the right product, a good product. That’s not to say that hockey can’t be expensive. But we need to create ways to welcome new people to the sport.”

NEHJ: Such as affordable starter packages?

Kavanagh: “Absolutely. Mass Hockey has worked closely with USA Hockey on One Goal starter equipment packages for the last few years. It’s a great program that USA Hockey has worked on with equipment manufacturers to create these entry-level packages. They’re not designed for sale to the individual, but for an association or a program to pick up 20 sets and use to their advantage, to host Try Hockey for Free events, or let kids use them for free in their first season. The next step would be to get into a Pure Hockey-type scenario, or another one of the retailers in the area, that offer complete equipment packages at a good price. You don’t have to spend $700 head-to-toe to outfit a kid, unless you want to. But you can get a starter pack for $150 and do just fine.”

NEHJ: Still, the 800-pound gorilla is the business model of youth hockey. Leagues dictate a long season, with hockey sometimes starting before soccer in the fall.

Kavanagh: “It’s also before the Bruins report to training camp.”

NEHJ: Exactly. You have the business side, with leagues owning rinks or partnered with rinks. That creates a September-to-April season, which is a situation that many parents don’t want to sign on for. The business model appears to be at odds with the development model. The bottom line is profit, not development.

Kavanagh: “Mass Hockey has a long-range planning committee whose task it is to try to identify where the sport is going, what changes need to be made to benefit the sport in the future. There’s a lot of debate. The reality is, if you buy a plot of land and spend a lot of money to put up boards and a sheet of ice, you need to get a return on your investment. There was a time, if you go back to the state rinks in the 1970s, where the state was able to underwrite those, and that made sense for a lot of communities. Now you see more private ownership of these facilities, and as a result, there’s a desire to generate revenue. That’s their right. But because of that, programs are being asked to purchase ice earlier and earlier, and keep it later and later. That’s just a byproduct of working with those businesses. So the long-range planning committee is trying to figure out how to best work within that. You don’t want rinks going out of business, because then you have one less rink where kids can skate. There’s got to be that happy medium somewhere. There’s no easy answer, but there needs to be good discussion about how we can allow families to experience everything that sports has to offer, not just hockey. That falls in line with our American Development Model. We want kids to play other sports. We think that’s very important, because we want to develop a better athlete, not just a hockey player.”

NEHJ: The ADM stresses practices, but the current business model favors games, because they’re more profitable.

Kavanagh: “Our leadership has been allowing the increase in the number of games. Profitability certainly can be a factor in that. But let’s not kid ourselves. Parents like to watch games. They like to watch their kids competing. It’s a lot more fun than sitting in the corner drinking your coffee while your kid is practicing for an hour. So there’s been a cry from the parents — ‘If we’re going to put in this kind of money and this kind of commitment, we’d much rather see our kid play in a game.’ This goes back to skill development. Statistically speaking, in a 50-minute game, the best players are going to have the puck on their stick for 1½-2 minutes. The average player is probably going to be under a minute. Some kids barely touch it at all. If you have an hour-long practice, all those kids are touching the puck from 30 to 40 minutes. So they’re developing, and becoming better players. We need to educate people. If you make good use of your ice time, and you push small-area games into your stations at practice, parents will watch their kids compete pretty hard.”

NEHJ: What about the issue of “select” or “elite” teams, or rogue programs cherry-picking kids from town programs?

Kavanagh: “It’s an issue. The reality is that we have a number of club teams in Massachusetts. That landscape exists, and it isn’t going to go backwards. As someone who grew up playing for my town program and then playing for my metro-league team, I’m nostalgic for the old days. Now, that being said, it’s OK. A lot of these club teams are offering really good programs. And for those who want to make that choice for their family, they certainly can. The other part to that is, how do we encourage our town programs to offer a competitive product? All things being equal, if I can play for my town, or if I have to drive a half-hour to another rink that this club team plays at, and I’m going to get the same experience, I’m going to stay close to home. That’s a pretty easy decision.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.