Teens do a man's job to fulfill hockey dreams
In this "Five Days of Hockey" series, The Detroit News will look at how the game intertwines with family, community and the desire to excel. Monday, Families keep hockey strong for ECHL's Walleye; Tuesday, Girls bonding over thrill on ice that is hockey; Wednesday, Players study for life after college hockey. Thursday, Leagues let older players keep skating for hockey joy.
Ann Arbor — The boys are back in town, having returned a few days earlier from Russia and the Czech Republic, where they played on two United States teams in international tournaments.
And now they are back after school, at Pioneer High.
About 40 of the best 16- to 18-year-old hockey players in the country bound through the doors at the United States National Team Development Program, operated by the organizing body for the sport, USA Hockey, at the Ice Cube in Ann Arbor.
They worked hard throughout their young lives to be accepted in the program.
As more and more Americans have reached the highest echelons of the NHL, the program, for 18 years, has been training some of America's best hockey players about a mile from Michigan Stadium.
In the world of hockey, this is a special place.
"The thing that's really neat is just the receptivity that the guys have at this age," said Danton Cole, coach of the younger team, Under-17.
"They want to learn. They're here — they have their family obligations and their school obligations — but, they're here, about hockey.
"They can't play anywhere else, right now," said Cole, who coached the Grand Rapids Griffins (2002-05) and led Alabama-Huntsville (2007-10) to a berth in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. "Like in the NHL, you might want to get traded, or in the American Hockey League everyone wants to be in the NHL, or in college everyone wants to be a pro.
"Right now, they're not drafted, and we think this is one of the best situations in the world for kids to be at."
Back in the groove
The guys drop books and bags in the 40 individual wooden stalls along the wall of a long hallway, which leads to the dressing rooms for the Under-17 and Under-18 teams.
Then they change into their workout clothes. And for the Under-18 guys, it is upstairs to lift weights and do other work in the gym. For the Under-17 players, whose next game is the next night, it is a video session, then practice.
The trophies in the greeting area demonstrate what this is all about: the eight trophies and eight team photographs of the eight Under-18 World Championships.
And the photos include former members of the program like Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings, Ryan Suter of the Wild and Ryan Kesler of the Ducks, just a few of the NHL stars and Olympic players who have trained here.
The current players all know winning U-18 World Championship is their ultimate goal.
But right now, doors are banging and there is lot of stuff for the guys to get done.
"Hi, Ms. Vollmers, how are you?" one of the guys calls out as he rushes off to the video session.
Lisa Vollmers, the academic adviser in her 11th season with the program, who has worked in the Ann Arbor Public Schools for 25 years, has stopped by to talk to Scott Monaghan, senior director of the national program.
"She's been just great," Monaghan said.
"We decided to put them all in one school, Pioneer. And Lisa is a big part of the educational piece here.
"They've all come back together, from Europe. And, then, it's bang! We get them right back into a groove."
The Under-17 team is done with its international schedule.
But the Under-18 team has more time before its next game. And the goal is firmly in mind.
"Our focus with the U-18 kids is the World Championship in April," said their coach, Don Granato. "The Five Nations tournament we just did is a great gauge for us."
Granato is the brother of Red Wings assistant Tony Granato and Cammi Granato, captain of the 1998 U.S. women's team that won the Olympic gold medal.
"The kids are so skilled that every viewing we get against Russia, Finland and Sweden is really good for our kids," he said. "When they play the junior teams here, they can lose sight of how rapid their development is, and that of the Russian kids, the Finns and the Swedish kids.
"Russia finished first in the tournament. They edged us out, beat us in overtime.
"I thought that was an eye-opener for our guys. That was the first time the Russians beat this group. We beat them four times
"So, we have some ground to make up."
Day at a time
For the young players, it is a rigorous schedule of early mornings, off to school, back to the Ice Cube for training, practices and possibly meetings, and then home to their billet families — where they will stay throughout the year — to get schoolwork done.
"I approach it one day at a time," said Luke Martin, 16, of St. Louis. "That's kind of the way everyone does it. Because, if you don't, you kind of get bogged down.
"And then, at the end of the every week, you've got to play a couple of games (in the United States Hockey League), which is a nice test as to what we did that week, what we learned, and see how you've developed."
Not unlike players in the NHL returning from trips, Martin said the guys are dealing with a little fatigue from the excitement, flights and changing time zones.
"The jet lag will get you," he said. "Some guys are getting sick, right now. One guy had the flu. But we're dealing with it."
Besides, he is looking forward to working on a key part of his game, and seeing how it goes against good competition.
"My big thing this week is getting shots through and generate more offense from the blue line," Martin said. "That's what I'm trying to work on."
As Martin and his teammates file into a room for a video session with Cole, the sound of free weights hitting the floor is unmistakable.
The Under-18 guys are hitting the workout room, under the charge of Darryl Nelson, the strength and conditioning coach.
"In season, two-day-a-week workouts," Nelson said. "So, total body workout each day; both times in the week.
"I think, with them at this age, really even in season, we're looking to make gains and build muscle mass and strength and power and those things. Whereas, in the NHL, it's more game intensive.
"They play during the week, and not just on weekends. You may be more into injury reduction and maintenance type of schedule, in the NHL. Whereas, here, we're really trying buildup, going into the last weeks and the world championships."
With the video and workout sessions done, both teams then take separate rinks in the Ice Cube for practices.
Cole and Granato skate among their separate teams, wearing hockey gloves and carrying a stick and a whistle. They both stop the proceedings periodically to draw things on white boards attached to the glass near the benches, with the teams arrayed in a semicircle in front of them.
And there are lots of repetitions.
Especially at this age, let alone in college, the AHL or NHL, practice is: Do it, do it and do it again.
And then, do it some more.
In his drills, Granato stresses "stick on puck," that is, keeping the stick on the ice whether on offense or defense, prepared to receive passes, prepared to cause an opponent some difficulty and confusion, and maybe even forcing a turnover.
He also emphasizes pace. Too often, concentrating on the concepts of the game and the details of playing, the guys slow down.
They have to do it all, and do it fast.
"It's the key word," Granato said, earlier. "It's reps, and it's hockey.
"As much innovation as there has been in the game — and there's been a lot with video and some other things, and it is going to continue — you are going to need to rep it. That is what we do. Repetitions. More and more reps, so it becomes more and more instinctive for them."
Sticking to it
Finally, the practices are done and, for this day, the repetitions are behind them.
As both teams head off the ice and into the dressing rooms and showers, some frivolity reigns.
They may be weary, but there is still some youthful exuberance.
One of the top Under-18 players, and the son of an NHL star, emerged for a moment to talk about the discipline it all takes, and how it meshes with being such a young man.
After waking up at 6:30 a.m., showering, eating breakfast, getting to school by 7:40, getting to practice about 1:45, lifting weights and practicing, 17-year-old Matthew Tkachuk is nearing the end of his day.
As a young guy, especially, does he ever think thoughts of running free from the place?
Tkachuk, son of Keith Tkachuk, who played in the NHL for 19 years, smiled at the notion.
"Obviously, you think about it," he said. "But, I mean, I don't really wish about it.
"I'm in the best place I can be to become an NHL hockey player. At age 13 or 14, I heard about all the guys who come here to make it on the pro level. It's what I wanted.
"Right now, we're just preparing for the Under-18 World Championships in a few months. And the goal there is the gold medal.
"And that's what we've been pushing for, for two years."