How do you ice a juggernaut on the international stage and see a plethora of your players taken in the NHL draft? Have your elite talent train, play and win together year-round.
It’s a crisp autumn morning in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the front office of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program is jammed with teenagers. Two NHL teams have sent scouts to interview the players, who are getting their schedules for the day from ace manager of communications and marketing Jake Wesolek. It doesn’t take long before the smack talk about video games begins. The night before, I’d asked Jordan Greenway, a 6-foot-5, 223-pound battleship power forward, which member of the squad was best at NHL 15. He slyly demurred and said to ask two-way center Colin White. Now it’s time to unleash the snare. “So who did Colin say was the best?” Greenway asks in front of the whole crew. White, who admitted the night before that Greenway rules the sessions, nevertheless returns serve as everyone smiles and chuckles: “I never play, but I bet I could grind you out!” The din grows as the teens shuffle about, until uber-skilled Jeremy Bracco spots the mom of fellow right winger Jack Roslovic entering from outside and runs over excitedly to give her a hug. Behind him is a trophy case featuring almost every championship chalice from the past six world under-18 tournaments, plus a couple from the world juniors. These aren’t your standard goofy teenagers: they’re the best prospects in the nation. And every year a new cohort signs up for battle. In less than two decades, the NTDP has become a force, counting at least 10 NHL draft picks per year in recent times and helping Team USA go from also-ran to constant threat on the international stage. And it all started with failure.
USA Hockey was at a crossroads in 1996. The Americans had stunned their Canadian rivals at the World Cup thanks to the likes of Mike Richter, Brett Hull and Tony Amonte. That same year, however, the nation’s world junior team had been an afterthought as host, finishing fifth in Boston. In 20 years of the tournament, Team USA had all of two bronze medals. “We looked around and said, ‘We’ve got good players, what do we need to do?’ ” said Scott Monaghan, an original member of the NTDP and now its senior director of operations. “The genesis was how do we take our best guys and focus on improving them and setting new bars that help other groups in the United States bring their level of development up.” Coming up with a blueprint was hard enough, since no such program existed in hockey. And to this day, Monaghan refers to the NTDP as a pilot program – essentially a pair of all-star teams made up of the best under-17 and under-18 players in the country. Early coaches such as Jeff Jackson, just a couple years removed from two NCAA titles with Lake Superior State, Bob Mancini and Moe Mantha helped shape things, but convincing talent to come to Michigan was challenging. “People couldn’t get their arms around what we were trying to do,” Monaghan said. “Those first couple of groups of kids, I call them the pioneers. They took a chance. They took a chance on their own development.” One of those players was Jordan Leopold. Coming from the cradle of high school hockey in Minnesota, Leopold originally turned down the NTDP’s invitation when he was approached at a Christmas tournament in Alberta. But after returning to his high school team, which played a limited schedule due to state rules, Leopold and his dad had the feeling they’d made a mistake. Leopold signed on but then had to deal with the fallout: Minnesotans didn’t take too kindly to having some new team in Michigan poaching the state’s best high school talent. “It was very controversial at the time,” Leopold said. “I remember being invited on to a radio show to talk about it, me and some veteran media guys. They fed me to the wolves. I was 16.” Framed portraits of Leopold, fellow pioneer Adam Hall and many other alumni now line the hall of the NTDP facility in Ann Arbor. The early years were trying as the program established itself. “We learned the tough way,” Leopold said. “We got beat up playing OHL teams. The Canadians hated us.” But eventually, the ethos took hold. The 2002 installment won the under-18s thanks to a roster that included Ryan Kesler, Jimmy Howard and Mark Stuart, plus Zach Parise, who had spent most of the season with Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep school. Since the program began, there have been three Americans drafted first overall into the NHL – Rick DiPietro, Patrick Kane and Erik Johnson – and all of them came from the NTDP, as did current NHL stars such as Phil Kessel, Ryan Suter and Kevin Shattenkirk. These days, joining the NTDP is a priority for many elite American teenaged players. “The aspect of representing my country appealed to me,” said right winger Christian Fischer, a Notre Dame commit from Illinois. “Putting on the USA jersey is something special. Also, they have a reputation for producing a lot of NHL players.” The key is in the program itself. Collecting the best talent from around the country helps, but the NTDP has specific goals in mind. An almost universal need for teenaged players is strength, which is best achieved in the weight room, not on the ice. To that end, off-ice workouts are the No. 1 priority. Coach Don Granato, who followed the 1997 birthdays from the under-17s to the under-18s, began the run by giving strength and conditioning coach Darryl Nelson a calendar with the first two months left blank, telling him to fill it out for strength development. “On the ice, the kids are passionate,” Granato said. “It’s not going to be hard to implement systems or develop their skill because they’re made for the ice. But I wanted to make sure we hammer them in the weight room, and if we need rest and have to shorten or cancel a practice, I’m willing to do that.” The results can be impressive and are propelled by internal competition. According to Wesolek, the players know when they’re a pound up or a pound down. While bigger kids like Fischer and Greenway are molding the frames they were blessed with, an undersized dynamo can really transform himself. Kane stands out in Monaghan’s mind, and the similarly crafty 5-foot-9 Bracco is the latest success story. “Last year I came in about 150 pounds,” he said. “Now I’m 173.” The weight room is one of numerous places where the team bonds. When they want to take it up a notch, the NTDP brass organizes a “Kirk session.”
Kirk Culik is a cross-training coach and former Marine who’s become a legend with the program since arriving 18 years ago. He’s responsible for the call-and-response military chant Team USA sings in the dressing room after every championship, and he puts the boys through their paces. “We do Kirk sessions where we run around the building with logs on our shoulders,” White said. “It’s kind of fun. That brings us together, because you can never leave somebody behind, we always have to stick together.” Of course, the result is a lot more rewarding than the process. “I wouldn’t say I enjoy them, but it definitely helps the program,” said Auston Matthews, a devastating center who may go first overall in the 2016 NHL draft. “When you’re overseas playing Russia in front of 8,000 screaming fans, it really helps the mental side of things.” There’s more pressure when the logo on the front of your sweater represents the Stars and Stripes. Most of the NTDP schedule is against junior teams in the United States League, followed by games against NCAA teams. But a difference between the NTDP and other squads is that winning isn’t everything. The schedule is designed to force kids out of their comfort zone, with the under-17s playing against USHL teams where the opponents are several years older. The under-18s also play USHL teams but then move on to Div. I schools such as Miami, Michigan and Cornell. “We’re always putting these players in a schedule where they’re going to be challenged to pay attention to the details,” Granato said. “If they lost a puck when they played midget, they could turn around and steal it back. They’re not going to do that when they play the University of Michigan – it might be in the back of the net. That component is identical to my days of coaching in the American League. Why is a player in the AHL and not the NHL? Well, he has to learn how and when to do things. Our schedule forces our players to do that.” International tournaments, one of the major reasons for the program’s existence, also dot the landscape. There’s a bit of chippiness in the USHL and NCAA games and Fischer believes jealousy is a factor (opponents would counter the NTDP kids are cocky). But there’s so much more on the line internationally and, once again, it offers a one-of-kind bonding experience. “When you go overseas, it’s just you, it’s nothing but your teammates,” Granato said. “I love being on the road because we have no veterans. There are no returning players that can show guys the way things are run around here. We get 20 rookies at a time.” The biggest tournament of the year is the under-18s, because Team USA’s squad is essentially the NTDP with maybe one outsider or a couple under-17s with elite skill. The Americans have dominated it lately, losing only one of the past seven gold medals – in a game featuring Canada’s Connor McDavid and what the Americans still refer to as an “off night” for them. This is where playing against older competition pays off, because the best 17-year-olds in the world don’t look so scary anymore. But there are always a few other meets throughout the season, often in Europe, where the team has procured some fanciful awards. After one tournament win in Switzerland, future NHLers Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba ended up lugging a big bear head carved out of wood onto the plane (it also came with an oversized cow bell). All these trophies are on display at the facility in Ann Arbor. There’s also a room for watching video or taking a life skills class to give the kids grounding on issues such as girls and drugs. Toss in the rink and the gym and you’ve got quite the complex. “It’s everything they could need in one building,” Wesolek said. Next season, the operation will move into a new home in Plymouth, just 20 minutes east. It’s the old home of the OHL’s Whalers, who decamped to another Michigan locale in Flint. It will be interesting to see how many people flock to see Team USA, since Ann Arbor games were mostly family and opposing fans from Midwest USHL opponents such as Bloomington and Muskegon. What the program lacks in a following, it makes up for in closeness. Though the 44 players from the two NTDP squads come from 17 different states plus Washington, D.C., at least half a dozen families have taken up temporary residence in Ann Arbor, acting as both parents and billets. And the bloodlines are showing, too. Keith Tkachuk’s son Matthew has been dynamite on a line with fellow 2016 hot-shot Matthews, while ex-Washington Capitals GM George McPhee can watch his son, Graham, play for the under-17s. For all the old hockey names, however, it’s the new ones that speak to the geographical expanse of the game in America. In Leopold’s day, his teammates came from the hotbeds of Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts, with Alaska thrown in for good measure. But Matthews was born and raised in Arizona, while goalie Michael Lackey can thank former Team Maryland teammate McPhee for helping him along the path. A converted center from the D.C. burbs, Lackey also played lacrosse at Exeter prep school before coming to the program and is committed to Harvard. While many of the Midwest and Massachusetts kids have played together since they were young, the outliers have found themselves catching up. As the grassroots game spreads in America and non-traditional markets such as Florida, Texas and Arizona produce more and more talent, Lackey’s story will become less common, since players like him will be everywhere. Matthews didn’t realize how good he was until he got called for an NTDP tryout and realized he could hang. Two years later, he broke Kane’s single-season NTDP scoring record with 116 points in 60 games. And while the good folks in Minnesota were worried about their talent getting drained when the program started, now it’s fair to say the kids should be worried the next big thing from Iowa or Oregon will take their spot – and a shot at representing the Stars and Stripes for two glorious years.
This is feature appears in the Draft Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.