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Finnish coaches provide youths, parents with different perspective

| Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2015, 4:18 p.m.

Members of two Western Pennsylvania youth hockey organizations gained an international perspective after coaches from the Finnish Ice Hockey Association watched them practice and met with their parents as part of a USA Hockey exchange program at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry last month.

Pittsburgh Penguins Elite hockey director Tim Cook said 350 boys and girls from his organization and 100 from the all-female Steel City Selects took to the ice at various times.

USA Hockey American Development Model regional manager Michele Amidon said the delegation observed four practices and conducted five others.

Parents were invited to a forum in which hockey development was discussed.

Finnish coach Pyry Lukkarila, 33, was impressed by the children's manners and their love of hockey.

“They were really polite and well-behaved,” he said. “The level of passion for the (sport) is even higher with the youth players in (the United States) because of the competition and (because) the (National Hockey League) is right there, (which) is both a good and a bad thing.

“Good is that the players work really hard and have a great respect for the coaches. But the passion might go (a) little overboard and the kids might feel a pressure to succeed when they are under 16 years of age.

“(It) might affect the kids' development and (inhibit their) fun.”

Amidon said USA Hockey encourages children to participate in other sports, which is something Penguins Elite player Cal Huston, 10, of Boardman, Ohio and his mother, Kathy, were happy to hear.

“I really liked how the USA Hockey coach said that we have to play other sports to get better at hockey, because I like to play (others) such as baseball, swimming and tennis,” Cal said.

“Never did I consider the playing of other sports as enhancement of my son's overall athleticism, but rather as guilt for not being 100 (percent) hockey focused,” said Kathy Huston, who attended the parents' forum.

Penguins Elite 16-and-under player Gwyneth Philips was awed by the USA Hockey and Finnish coaches.

“I was blown away by the level of effort from them, as well as from my teammates,” said Philips, 15, a Shady Side Academy freshman from Athens, Ohio. “They seemed to truly care about teaching us new things and helping us improve. I learned quite a bit from the coaches (that) improved my skills.”

Lukkarila and Amidon were dazzled by the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, which opened earlier this year and serves as a training base for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

“(It is) one of the best facilities in the world right now,” Lukkarila said. “Everything has been designed to give players and coaches the possibility to do the right things to (develop).”

“All the families and players who use the facility should be proud and excited to have such an amazing ice hockey training center they can call home,” said Amidon, of Denver, Colo.

Lukkarila said he enjoyed catching up with Penguins player Olli Maatta, who is from Finland, after a Penguins morning skate at the complex.

Amidon said, for decades, USA Hockey worked with many International Ice Hockey Federation members. Last year, she said, USA Hockey player development staff visited Finland as part of a 10-day coaching exchange.

“This year, we returned the favor,” Amidon said.

Karen Kadilak is a freelance writer.

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