Dylan Larkin, who will be playing hockey at Michigan next season, is currently on the U18 team in the Ann Arbor National Development Program. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News)
Ann Arbor — “Hook ’em while they’re young.”
That was the goal set forth by USA Hockey in 1996, hoping to establish a program that would prepare student-athletes under the age of 18 for international hockey as well as preparing players for the rigors of the NHL.
And that quote from the 1999 movie “Dogma” sums up what the National Team Development Program, based in Ann Arbor, has accomplished.
In 18 years, the program has seen 228 former players selected in the NHL draft, including 48 in the first round, while Team USA has seen a surge in success, winning four of the last five Under-18 world titles and two of the last five world junior titles. No other country has won more than one during that span.
“There were a few different reasons for starting the program and one of them was to definitely start doing better internationally,” said Danton Cole, coach of the U-18 team. “I think they took a pretty long view of it and decided that we needed to start building things younger and have guys go through more of these (international) events and understand how you have to play internationally and the importance of it.
“I know the senior men’s and Olympics were the long-term goals.”
Nine players who participated in the program are on Team USA’s roster for the Sochi Games, which begin Friday, among them Phil Kessel (Canucks), Patrick Kane (Blackhawks) and Jimmy Howard (Red Wings).
Cole, a Pontiac native, takes pride in representing USA Hockey. He played at Michigan State in the late 1980s, then in the NHL before a successful coaching career.
He has been with the program the last four years.
“We’ve copied a lot of other countries and brought some of their training and principles in having a team together like Russia used to do,” he said.
“We’ve kind of raised the bar and some of the other countries are starting to do things different and that’s interesting. We’ve done a good job where we’re now well known throughout the world, where other countries know our program well and respect it.”
Participating in the program is not a given.
Peter Ward, director of player personnel, and 8-10 regional scouts begin looking at players two years before they’re eligible to participate.
Once a players is selected, he joins a total of 50 athletes during a tryout before the field is cut to 22 — the final number of players who will be in the program for two years. They attend Ann Arbor Pioneer High while they participate in the program.
“NHL teams are drafting players at 18 and 19 years old and it’s hard to get a read on where someone will be at 21 or 22,” Cole said. “We all know players develop at different stages and there are fabulous NHL players who were never drafted.
“One of the things we really try to emphasize to the young men who don’t make it is that it’s not their end of time with USA Hockey.”
Take Andy Copp. Copp tried out for the program but was cut. He was called back as a fill-in, and stuck with the team.
Now a sophomore at Michigan, Copp played in the World Junior Championships last month.
“I think the training, first and foremost, they do a very good job of developing players, and I got a lot faster and stronger,” Copp said. “The physical side you gets a lot better, and obviously competing against some of the best players in the country is going to bring the best out of you and make you better.
“They do a really good job of helping you mature physically and mentally to what it takes to get to that next level.”
Scott Monaghan, senior director of operations, has been with the program since its inception.
“It’s always a work in progress,” Monaghan said. “I think one of the things that’s continued to make the program good and it’s helped us stay where we are is that to all of us, it’s still a pilot project where we’re still looking for new ideas, new ways to help kids get better.”
It is, however, a program that, as Monaghan says, puts “the kids over their heads.”
The training consists of 55 games and 125-130 practices the first year followed by 60 games and 110-120 practices in Year 2.
And that rugged schedule is not for everyone.
“I think that one of the things that has made us successful is the fact we’re focused on the kids who want to be here,” Monaghan said. “The idea is to get them in here, experience the training and the grind of what we do to help them with their development.
“It’s not the easiest program. They’re basically going from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. every day.”
Waterford’s Dylan Larkin played in the program the last two years, and is thankful for the experience.
He scored two goals — both on the power play — in a 5-2 victory over Russia in the U-18 Five Nations Tournament on Tuesday.
“When I first came here I was like a little kid, 6-foot and 172 pounds; now, I’m 6-1 and 195 pounds and I’m ready for college,” said Larkin, who will play at Michigan next year. “It’s easier to jump into the big games like Michigan because of all the preparation we do.”