Shaking The Foundation

A decade ago, with the prospects of ever bringing home Olympic gold in men’s hockey almost inconceivable, USA Hockey decided it was time for a change.

The result was the construction of the National Team Development Program (NTDP), a boot-camp style program that identifies top hockey talent at a young age — players generally are selected for the program at age 16 or 17 — and, through concentrated teaching, builds a top-notch hockey player from the ground up.

Ten years after the program’s inception, the NTDP will make its biggest statement on a high-profile stage. When Saturday’s NHL draft commences in Vancouver, more than a dozen NTDP players should become NHL property.

That alone might not be too impressive to some. Teams in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Western Hockey League (WHL) have been turning out massive numbers of draft picks for years. Brandon of the WHL gave 10 players to the 1979 Draft. Sudbury (1993) and Oshawa (1995) have done the same.

But in each of those years, the high volume of drafted players didn’t translate to the first round. Brandon in ’79 had the most — four first-round picks — and none higher than ninth overall.

Saturday, the NTDP is poised to produce the first overall pick, potentially the top two selections and almost certain five first-round picks total.

Not bad for a decade’s work.

“Our goal when we established the program ten years ago was to have a presence so that we could elevate the status of the American player to those who make selections,” said Ron DeGregorio, president of USA Hockey. “Right now, we’re ahead of the benchmark.”

As much as DeGregorio and his staff will have plenty of pride at Saturday’s Draft, the fact that the program has created top prospects isn’t the goal of the program, but more of a byproduct.

This program is about the world stage, not just the NHL. The U.S. is a country that enjoys hockey, but a place where hockey will never be the number-one sport. If the sport is going to grow its popularity, though, it is the international stage, not the big-money NHL, where things will begin.

“Before 1996, besides the two Miracles on Ice (gold medals at the 1960 and 1980 Olympics), we never won medals in International competition,” DeGregorio said. “Now, the NTDP has changed the perception around the world. We’ve won the under-18 championship in back-to-back years. We’ve won the under-20 (World Junior championship).”

Those championships, DeGregorio said, are ahead of expectations. When the NTDP was created 10 years ago, the goal was to win the World Juniors by 2006 (the U.S. won in 2005). The under-18 tournament didn’t exist in 1996, but when it was created, the goal was to win within four years. It took the U.S. just two.

The only benchmark not yet accomplished is Olympic gold — 2012 is the goal for that.

Judging by the way things have gone, though, there’s no reason not to believe that can happen.

Building The House, Brick By Brick

So how does a program like this turn out such a volume of talent? According to Jim Johannson, senior director of hockey operations for USA Hockey, it can be summed up in one word: coaching.

“They’re getting excellent coaching,” said Johannson. “I compliment our coaches present and past who have been in that program. The coaches are with these guys 24/7 as people and players.”

The fact that the players are immersed in everything they do — whether it’s on-ice training, off-ice fitness and nutrition, education or social development — give the coaches and administrators in USA Hockey an upper hand. These players always practice and play around the best in their age group. They interact socially with people identical to them.

To say it in the best way possible, it’s almost like the NTDP is building clones of the prototypical hockey player.

“We teach these guys to compete and we’re putting them in situations where they have to compete every day in practice or they’re not going to survive,” says Johannson, who admitted that other countries are beginning to model their development program after the U.S.

The program consists of two teams — an under-17 team and an under-18 team. Each club plays an amalgamated schedule of games against college, junior and international teams.

Johannson stresses the fact that the games that are played are simply vehicles of competition. It’s not about winning. It’s not about a score.

“We’re not measuring by wins and losses, it’s more about how the players’ bodies are changing,” said Johannson. “It’s a two year maturation. Our program is about where they come in and where they go out.”

Exit Polls

If, indeed, as Johannson says that the program’s measurement is to produce the best player when they leave, right now everything is pointing to extreme success.

It’s expected that Erik Johnson, who played this past season for the Under-18 club, will be the number one overall selection on Saturday. Minnesota’s Phil Kessel, who graduated the program a year ago, could go number two and without any doubt will be a top five selection.

A trio of NTDP players — Peter Mueller, Mark Mitera, Chris Summers — are all pretty much first round locks, with Mueller a possible top five.

“It’s a testament to see how far American hockey has come in the past few years,” said Johnson when asked about the NTDP. “They’re starting to become one of the elite hockey nations and that’s beginning to show at World Juniors and during [international] team tournaments. I think the program has turned out a lot of great players and will continue to do so.”

Both college hockey and the NHL have become two major beneficiaries of the NTDP. Almost every player has gone on to play college hockey, the majority of late heading to the WCHA. But more important than just going to college is the age and maturity level at which teams players arrive.

“[The NHL] excited that these players are 18 years old and in college,” said Johannson. “For the NHL, the younger the kids are when they leave college, the better.”

Character Counts

If there’s one thing that is stressed by USA Hockey officials, the NTDP isn’t just about churning out great hockey players, it’s as much about building character kids. Don’t think that’s just a PR statement either. Those at USA Hockey understand that a good hockey players isn’t what wins championships. It’s the ability to pull together a full team of those hockey players as a single unit. And that doesn’t happen without character.

“I think we have by and large a great group of character players,” DeGregorio said. “They’re not only a great group of hockey players, but they’re educated into the importance of their performance for hockey in the U.S. They take that responsibility very seriously.”

Saturday, many people who have never been exposed to the NTDP will be. This is a program that, in the hockey world, is about to take center stage.

Judging by the little time this writer has spent around these players in the last couple of days, one things is very clear: They’re ready to shine.