Top U.S. players face world’s elite in Plymouth
Plymouth — During the season, while playing junior hockey in the best league in the country, the 16- and 17-year-olds training in the USA Hockey Arena punch well above their weight.
The cream of young hockey talent skimmed in coast-to-coast recruiting efforts that begin two years before they arrive at the National Team Development Program play games against 17- to 20-year olds in the United States Hockey League.
It is all part of the effort by USA Hockey to train players for international competition at the NTDP, which is 20 years old.
Along the way, it has had a profound effect on the NHL.
Former NTDP players like Dylan Larkin of the Red Wings, Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks, and 54 others have been selected in the first round of the NHL draft since 1996.
This season, 67 former NTDP players have played in the NHL.
Six of the top 10 players ranked for the 2016 draft played for the Under-17 NTDP team last season.
This week, the team of 16- and 17-year-olds play for the United States in a five-nation tournament against the best players their age from the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden.
They start against the Czech Republic at 7 tonight in the former Compuware Arena, which the USA Hockey Foundation purchased two years ago and is renovating and expanding.
It is the first international tournament in the new home of the NTDP.
“These tournaments are great developmental tools,” said coach Don Granato, brother of Red Wings assistant Tony Granato and U.S. Olympian Cammi Granato, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“And really that’s what this whole program is about: Developing the kids beyond here, and developing them in the hopes of winning a U-18 World Championship, which is what our older team is going for in April.
“It’s going to be experience gained for our players. Having to perform against Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland — in this case, in our own building — it’s thrusting those expectations and that pressure on the team.
“It’s very important.”
And the young guys can feel it.
They say they already were excited to be the first NTDP age groups to play in an independent home for the program after it left the Ann Arbor Ice Cube last year.
But heading to a practice after arriving back in Plymouth from classes at Ann Arbor Pioneer High, they talked about the honor and excitement of skating for their country against the best players their age from four other major hockey-playing nations.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to be the first group not only to play here, but to have the first international tournament here,” said Max Gildon, 16, a sizable defenseman from Plano, Texas.
“I mean, we’re excited, we’re ready to go and we feel good about or chances.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for us just as individuals and a team.”
Most of the players were in AAA Midget last year, and not only is it a big step up to the NTDP, playing major junior hockey in the USHL also is a considerable new challenge.
“There’s a lot of new stuff that we work on here,” said Scott Reedy, 16, a forward from Prior Lake, Minn., who played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep and is committed to the University of Minnesota.
“A lot of it is playing at a higher level. Playing in the USHL, it’s quicker speed, bigger guys and we’re working a lot on getting stronger in the weight room, being able to compete with these bigger, faster, stronger guys.
“I think a lot of it is just getting stronger, and keep working our skills.”
Granato said the coaches often notice the performances the first few games of the USHL schedule can be quite difficult for their young players.
But as the season goes on, it gets a lot better.
“I think just knowledge of the game,” said Grant Mismash, 16, a forward from Edina, Minn., who also played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep last season.
“I didn’t know how much more there was to the game, and just working with your teammates and using your teammates all around the ice.
“It’s a completely different game now, compared to what it was last year.
“It’s obviously a big change, but I feel like our team now is pretty comfortable with it. But the first couple of weeks, it was a pretty rough start.”
Winning moves to forefront
Beginning Tuesday in the Five Nations Tournament, they play against guys their own age, albeit the best from the other four nations.
Each country is bringing talented rosters to Plymouth, and there are a couple standouts on each team fans can note: Jan Hladonik, No. 19, and Jan Kern, No. 12, for the Czech Republic; Joni Ikonen, No. 13, and Aleksi Anttalainen, No. 2, for Finland: Klim Kostin, No. 24, and Aleksander Alexeev, No. 4, for Russia; and Fabian Zetterlund, No. 26, and Victor Berglund, No. 27, for Sweden.
Granato said that amid all the emphasis on development, a tournament also offers another opportunity.
“Within a tournament, when you get within your age bracket now, it’s about winning,” Granato said.
“This is now a different level of compete.
“In the regular season, you are competing to develop, and competing to build habits to progress. In the event, you are competing to win. It’s a whole different level of expectation.
“And the players feel it.
“They feel that when they go into these games that, boy, it’s this is going to be a complete disappointment if we don’t win.”
Five Nations Tournament
What: Under-17 teams from the United States, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden
When: Tuesday-Saturday, USA Hockey Arena, Plymouth
Tickets: $15 and $18
Details: (734) 453-6400 or usahockeyarena.com
■Finland vs. Russia, 3:30 p.m.
■United States vs. Czech Republic, 7 p.m.
■Russia vs. Sweden, 3:30 p.m.
■United States vs. Finland, 7 p.m.
■Sweden vs. Finland, 3:30 p.m.
■Russia vs. Czech Republic, 7 p.m.
■Czech Republic vs. Finland, 3:30 p.m.
■United States vs. Sweden, 7 p.m.
■Czech Republic vs. Sweden, 3:30 p.m.
■United States vs. Russia, 7 p.m.