Skill building on ice: 3 on 3 league gives players a chance to build confidence

HOUGHTON — The fundamentals are key to any sport, along with fun. For local Squirt- and Peewee-aged hockey players, the opportunity to get some more ice time after their collective seasons have come to an end is back for its second season.

Dee Stadium has become the nightly site for a group of relaxed 3-on-3 games.

One of the program’s founders, John Donnelly, shared what inspired the group to come together and create the now six week-long program for the youth of the area.

“I’ve got five kids and four of them play hockey,” said Donnelly. “My last one is a Squirt, so that’s where I’m at. It’s fun. We’re lucky to live up here (with) our hockey culture. We produce four (high school) hockey teams (and) three of them are usually competing at the state level. My (second-)oldest son completed there this year, and it’s a fun sport and with the bye-in in this area, people enjoy it. If I didn’t live in this area, I don’t know if I would have my kids in hockey. It makes it fun.”

With a family chock full of hockey players, Donnelly says the competition is high in his house.

“There’s a lot of competition,” said Donnelly. “My oldest is 22, he and I coach (Houghton’s) junior varsity, which my daughter was a goalie for. He and my 10-year-old always banter back and forth. He’s always feeding into that, and got to watch the (Houghton) High School run and got all excited for this.”

For most kids involved in the program, it’s not only something fun to do but also keeps them busy in between winter and spring sports before baseball takes off.

“We always get done with hockey sometimes as early as February, (or) the beginning of March, and then you can’t play baseball outside,” Donnelly said. “Last year, a (group) of us set this up.

“I think last year we had 96 skaters and (this year) all we did was email them back. We didn’t advertise and had a 120 kids sign up. It was neat.”

The program is meant to allow kids to skate freely with little restrictions allowing them to make the game strategy up as they go along.

“We over-coach kids so much,” said Donnelly. “Here, if you come there isn’t any coaching on the bench. The kids just kind of make the game up as they go (and) there are phenomenal little plays that go on. We’ve got travel and the house (players, so there is a) mix of everybody. We try to come up with even teams, but that’s (difficult).

“We did it for four weeks last year and it was fun. It was hard to get through spring break because so many kids go on spring break, but what about the kids who don’t? It gives them something to do. This whole things costs $100 (per skater) and they (get) a ton of ice time.”

Melissa Collard of Dollar Bay has two children involved in the program, one in each age group.

“I have two players,” said Collard. “One plays today and one plays tomorrow. This is three on three (and is) a little bit different than the normal hockey, so really, at this level, it’s a lot of teamwork; just activity getting these kids off the couch and off the video games. (They are) learning the importance of their positions and how to play all together.

“This is a little bit faster, so it’s (about) quick-thinking skills. It’s fun to watch them improve. It’s only six weeks, but it’s fun to watch them.”

Collard has two players at two different levels of play and she says it is fun for her to watch them both grow and change into two unique players, which makes it exciting for the whole family.

“I have a son and a daughter that play, so there’s a big, big difference,” she said. “Girls are a little bit more artistic in the way that they play and they’re fun to watch. I have one that’s a goalie and one that’s out and they just play really different positions, but the thing that I love about it is they always cheer each other on. She never misses one of his games and he rarely misses one of her games. (It’s a) family affair for sure.”

The program brings kids together from all different local towns and schools allowing them to branch out and make new friends with kids they do not really interact with during the school year.

“It’s the end of the season, so this is more of a for fun thing,” said Collard. “It’s kids from all over the area playing together and they all kind of get to know each other. When they do go back to their own team in the end, they can rattle each other. It’s cool.”

A parent of two players, Eric Nettell spent some time volunteering at the concession stand during the skate Monday. Parents of players are required to complete eight volunteer hours for each player that participates to help keep the program running smoothly. Nettell sees this program as a fundamental stepping stone to prepare the young players for five on five play in the future.

“I have two sons that play, (and I) have played and coached in the past,” he said. “I’m basically here with my boys. I’m putting in my time doing the concession stand. We have to donate hours per each kid that plays.

“This three on three program that’s going on right now is helping (players) gain confidence for all the kids. It’s nice. With the half ice, (it allows) kids (to) make decisions quicker and gives them confidence (with) getting the puck and lifting their head. All around, this program is helping out tremendously.”

“From this three on three last year, I noticed that more kids gain quite a bit more confidence,” he said. “It’s making them make decisions and building their spirits with the game. They’re understanding the game more.”

Hancock native Forest LaCourt has been skating in the program for four weeks.

“It’s fun and you get to learn more,” he said. “(I play) center and left wing. I like making new friends and having fun. I hope (to) learn (to make) bigger strides (on the ice and can pass more to be a stronger player.”