USA Hockey building a winner in old Compuware Arena

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Plymouth — After 8 o’clock on a hot August night, about 60 people sat and stood in the basement of USA Hockey Arena, known until several days earlier as Compuware Arena.

For the next hour, they talked with coaches and administrators of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, arrayed on an informal dais.

The Tigers were yet to completely break down. There was other baseball and preseason football on TV. But about five dozen folks from around Metro Detroit stayed late to talk hockey with the guys training young American men to play in the NCAA, the Olympics and international championships, the AHL and the NHL.

The “NTDP” moved to Plymouth this summer, dragging literally tons of workout, hockey, training and video equipment with them.

USA Hockey is financing an expansion of the arena, maintaining youth hockey activities still available through Compuware and its former CEO Peter Karmanos, majority owner of the Hurricanes, and providing new viewing opportunities for fans, including full schedules of junior hockey, beginning with road games next week.

The move adds the successful training program of the national governing body of hockey to the traditional presence in Metro Detroit of figure skating clubs, which for seven decades have trained Olympians and professionals.

“This program was started in 1996, in Ann Arbor, by Jeff Jackson, who now coaches at Notre Dame,” Scott Monaghan, senior director of operations and an original member of the staff, told those gathered to talk hockey.

“We were having some success on the international stage, but we felt like after the ’80 Olympics we weren’t doing as well as we should be doing. We were putting out some good players, but we weren’t putting out a lot of depth.”

Between Jackson’s design and the development of the program since he left, the results are considerable.

Record of success

The NHL has drafted 261 player from the program, 56 in the first round. Last season, 67 NHL players on 26 teams trained in the program.

In the first hour after the gold medal defeat in overtime at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, a Russian reporter asked how the United States men had been able to draw close to Canada, over the years.

Brian Burke, the general manager of United States team, did not hesitate.

“It’s the training and development program, the NTDP,” Burke said. “It’s been the single biggest development in the development of the Olympic team, and American players entering the NHL.

“It’s been just terrific.”

USA Hockey is financing an expansion of the facility formerly known as Compuware Arena.

It is all a bit of a hybrid approach, for the 17 and 18-year-olds annually recruited as the best in the nation.

“It is a different animal than just a junior team, in that it is a national program,” Monaghan said. “These are the best kids from around the country, at least as we’ve judged them, over the course of two years.

“And they are in a very intensive training environment. Their days are very long.”

The players still attend Ann Arbor Pioneer, and the two-story, 20,000-square-foot addition, awaiting construction, will include new study areas for them, along with training conference rooms and staff offices in half of the area.

The remaining 10,000 feet is a new weight training room for the players.

“It’s state of the art, and not just for our kids but for the other national teams that may come in there, men and women, or our sled hockey team,” Monaghan said.

The old Whalers and visitors locker rooms are being gutted and new room will be built.

“The goal for us is to not only make things better for the NTDP and grow the program and our other national teams, but to be able to have an arena that we can point to as USA Hockey and say, we try to set the standard,” Monaghan said. “This is how we really try to run a good business, and be a showplace for hockey in Michigan.

“For us, we’re really looking now for the program to be more exposed, for people to really see it and to know that it is unique to have an Olympic development program in your neighborhood.”

Future plans

The move establishes an arena for USA Hockey to schedule smaller international events, like the annual international U-17 and U-18 tournaments that rotate between host countries. Such events will roll out slowly, but they may include the Women’s National Team, the World Junior Team and the Sled Hockey Team.

“The door is open for a lot of stuff few can do on the international front,” Monaghan said. “It doesn’t mean all international events are going to be here, but it gives us a core facility to host those events.

“One of the reasons the program was put here in the beginning is the area is so central to the hockey world.”

Two teams, under 18-years-old (U-18) and under-17 (U-17), play a schedule of USHL games, beginning on the road next week and, at home, on Oct. 9 against the Chicago Steel.

A scrimmage against the Fighting Irish follows on Oct. 11, and the U-18 team has given some of the NCAA fellows a fair run for their money over the years.

Meanwhile, youth hockey and other hockey and skating-related activities of the years when Compuware Arena was the home of the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League will continue.

Although he sold it, Karmanos recently entered the building, with his children, preparing for some hockey.

Karmanos’ decisions to sell the junior hockey franchise, which is now the Flint Firebirds, and the facility to USA Hockey are just another addition to his resume as “a builder” of hockey, which will be recognized this autumn with his induction into that wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame, in Toronto.

“Compuware is still our primary tenant, I guess is the best term,” Monaghan said, referring to the host of youth hockey programs that have developed the sport over the decades. “And we’re here to help the youth hockey program, in any way that we can.

“We view it, and USA Hockey views it, as a program that historically is one of the great programs in the country, and we want to help it stay there, grow and be even better.”