The U.S. National Junior Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., was founded in 1996 with the noble goal of providing American players with a high-level development option on home soil, while also leaving their NCAA eligibility intact. By extension, this would encourage more players to develop in the U.S., and then eventually go to U.S. colleges instead of developing in Canada’s major junior system and thus relinquish college eligibility.
But six years later, the USNTDP has been wrought with various criticisms and political wranglings, while the results remain questionable.
This year, defections of star American youth players to the major junior system have increased. So far, four players have backed out of commitments to play for the USNTDP and will instead play major junior hockey. At the same time, defections of players already in college to juniors has increased as well, an odd trend considering the inroads the college hockey seems to have made, as evidenced by such measures as the NHL Draft.
A popular amateur hockey web site in Canada — hockeyscouting.ca — offered this analysis of the current situation at the USNTDP, as it announced the news of the most recent defection. It is reprinted here with permission.
by Brent Park/Special to USCHO
According to reliable sources, www.hockeyscouting.ca has learned that 6-foot-5, 230-pound defenseman, Devereaux Heshmatpour, will not report to the USNTDP next season.
Instead, he will be going to the Kitchener Rangers (OHL).
“Heshmatpour played the USNTDP’s offer against the Kitchener offer,” said one source, “and good for him, he has earned the right to look at all of his options.”
One agent feels that this reflected positively on the USNTDP.
“Just having a chance to go to a NTDP tryout camp was so helpful for his career,” says one source close to the player. “If anything, it helped him secure a great deal with Major Junior in the OHL, so I am sure Devereaux appreciates everything that the USNTDP has done for him. And that is not a jab.”
In a USHR report written recently by Chris Warner, head coach Moe Mantha had terse words for the Heshmatpour family.
“What is a father teaching his son about the value of his name?” Mantha asked. “Signing a commitment, putting your name to paper, should actually mean something.”
Some agents take that with a grain of salt.
“Well I will tell you what,” says one agent, “the kid cannot control the fact that he got a great offer. You mean to tell me if Moe got an offer to coach in the OHL or [a] College Division I offer with a six-figure salary, guaranteed five year deal, schooling package for his kids and a company car he would not take it. Gimme a break, and quit crying me a river.”
Reports have also been circulating that Bobby Ryan will be leaving for Owen Sound instead of playing in the USNTDP next season.
Nathan Gerbe [a Michigan recruit] may not be reporting to the team in 2004-05, although that has not been confirmed at this time.
To replace Heshmatpour’s spot on the roster, the USNTDP offered a spot on the team to highly regarded L.A. Junior King defenseman, David Innman, a 6-1 defenseman who is a solid all-around hockey player.
There are now four players that have reneged on offers to go and play for the USNTDP this year. There may be an additional two more players leaving before the end of the summer also.
USHR reported that the majority of these players are represented by NHL agent, Don Meehan. The report also stated that Newport was a highly unpopular agency in USA Hockey circles.
“Newport is not popular with the USA Hockey management because their clients are going to the OHL right now,” says a source close to the situation. “If their clients were going to the NTDP, everything would be peachy.”
Another source cautions reading too much into the negative Newport innuendo.
“Newport works for the client’s best interests,” said the source, “and in the end, the client decides what is best.What USA Hockey thinks about an agent does not matter.”
The USNTDP sees agents as the enemy, according to many inside sources.
“They hate agents and advisors,” says the source. “They banned them from the tryouts this season. I think the thing they have to understand is that in the end the agents/advisors play a big part in the process, and doing things like banning them from tryouts is not going to create positive happy feelings.”
Some agents feel that some loose cannons have made it difficult.
“They banned agents from the USA NTDP program last season because one was making a pitch to a player at an inappropriate time,” says one agent, “but to ban them all was just [dumb]. They could have just issued warnings, and had a seminar before the camp, and outlined how things will be, and treated us agents like men.”
Another agent agrees.
“They prevent us from doing our jobs and earning a living,” said one agent, “and then they turn around and wonder why kids are being advised to go to the OHL or WHL?”
In a very controversial decision last March, USA Hockey decided to put up tape/paper on all the windows. They also did not allow coaches, scouts and agents through the doors.
One agent was kicked out of the facility.
“Surprise, surprise, the player that he represents will be going to the WHL next season and another advisor, who’s his best friend, sent his kid to Major Junior over the deal,” said one source.
Is it war?
Not quite, but it is getting close.
“You do not bite the hand that feeds you,” states one agent. “It was a real blunder what happened back in March, and I think that the fallout is starting to show now … let’s hope that never happens again.
Did it make entry to the rink harder all the extra security? No. Several agents, as well as two www.hockeyscouting.ca scouts, made it past the door with no problem.
Security was very lax.
“They are going to have to hire a professional team of security professionals,” says one source, “because a lot of people made it into the rink. It was actually comical.”
Another advisor/agent put his two cents in.
“When you have coaches more concerned about security breaches then what is going on out on the ice that is a bit of an issue.”
What’s our personal opinion on all this?
The USNTDP is getting a lot of bad press these days.
Instead of banning media and agents from camps, they should be promoting the positive aspects of the camp.
The young AAA players in the Michigan area would have really benefitted from being able to come out and watch high-end kids try out. Fans from all over Michigan would have had a great opportunity to see the next crop of superstars.
The players who worked hard to get to that level deserved to attend a big-time hockey weekend. No promotion was done. The players played uninspired hockey for the most part in front of no fans, scouts and coaches.
“If I was a player I would want to attend a big-time event,” says one agent. “They should be promoting the positive aspects of the program and encouragings fans and coaches to come to these events.”
USA Hockey wonders these days why it has lost grass-roots support for the USNTDP. It wonders why players, agents and advisors are looking at other options.
It is time for USA Hockey to realize that the NTDP should be operated like a big-time hockey program. not some secret society where the names of who is invited to the NTDP camp are kept from the public.
This is a program that needs to be promoted. It is a program that needs to promote its superstars.
USA Hockey is dropping the ball on what is for the most part a very positive hockey program. It is a program that has helped develop a lot of high-end players. It is a program that has developed a great core of players. A core of players that may win the Gold next season at the World Junior Championships.
The bottom line though? It all comes down to public relations, and this is where the organization has failed in our opinion.
But if the NTDP plans to draw the top kids in the future they will have to work closer with the agents/advisors and promote the program to the public.
In this day and age of internet and cable TV people want information.
If the NTDP continues to operate like a secret society a great concept will fall by the wayside.
The players deserve to play in a big-time hockey environment. With all of its resources it is amazing that players would even want to think about playing anywhere else. Things will have to change to bring the elite level players back on board very soon, or next year will be worse for player defections.