TAMPA – If you’re going to lose to anybody, it might as well be to your friends, right? Team Atlantic beat Team Metropolitan in the All-Star semi-final, a game that featured a quartet of the NHL’s young American stars.
Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Zach Werenski and Noah Hanifin are all important pieces of their respective NHL franchises, but they also hail from the vaunted U.S. National Team Development Program in Michigan.
What began as a developmental experiment in 1997 has evolved into a production juggernaut over the years. The hallmarks of the NTDP have been games against older competition (such as Division 1 college programs and USHL teams) and a big focus on strength training off the ice. While it was difficult to convince the best American teens to pick the NTDP over their high schools or major junior opportunities in the early years, ‘The Program’ now can basically pick and choose from the top American talents across the land, as famous alumni prove why joining up can further a teen’s elite development.
“Moving away from home, you grow up a lot there,” Hanifin said. “The training they put you through – you get a lot stronger and they prepare you for the next level.”
There’s also a definite brotherhood vibe to the place, something the players cite as a highlight.
“Just the first couple weeks when you get there, becoming really close with the guys,” Werenski said. “It was fun coming here and playing with Noah, because we were roommates and ‘D’ partners at the NTDP.”
While veterans such as Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel represent some of the bigger names of the NTDP’s history, the four players from the East’s all-star teams are currently carving out some pretty impressive paths themselves.
The NTDP features two teams – a group of under-17s and a group of under-18s. But the best of the best under-17s will often get called up, so Matthews, Werenski and Hanifin all saw time with Eichel’s under-18 cohort. Matthews and Hanifin even helped Eichel’s group win gold at the world under-18s, a tournament that Team USA has dominated in recent years thanks to the NTDP.
Perhaps most impressive is how the machine keeps on rolling. On top of this year’s All-Star crop, you also have Seth Jones (named, but unable to attend due to sickness), Charlie McAvoy and Clayton Keller making noise in the NHL in their post-NTDP careers. And while this is a story for another day, keep an eye on this year’s under-17 edition, which may be the best and most talented group in NTDP history, if you can believe it.
But back to the present: while Eichel plays for Buffalo and Matthews for rival Toronto, the two came together for a very nice goal in the first period of the semi-final, conjuring up those old international glory days. Later in the victory over the Metropolitan stars, the duo had a viral moment when they lampooned Erik Karlsson’s waved-off goal by emphatically pointing to the net after an Eichel score.
“Those two were cracking themselves up,” said Tampa/Atlantic coach Jon Cooper. “That was a little USA Hockey we were thinking, throwing those two guys together. I actually would’ve liked to sit between the two of them during their shifts, because they were funny.”
The most exciting part? We have only begun to see the best hockey from Matthews, Eichel, Werenski and Hanifin. They will be ambassadors for the NTDP for years to come and the bonds they forged while winning medals for Team USA as teens are very strong.
“No matter how far our hockey careers go,” Hanifin said, “We’ll always remember those tournaments we played together when we were younger.”