USA Hockey develops players by facing Michigan State

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Danton Cole says his Spartans will try to prove opposing coaches wrong after being picked to finish last in the Big Ten in the preseason poll.

Plymouth — As it aims to play for gold at the Olympics, World Championships and World Junior Championships, while increasing the number of NHL players born in the United States, USA Hockey makes its kids play adults.

It is good for them.

The under-18-years-old United States team from the National Team Development Program, which trains in USA Hockey Arena, will travel to East Lansing Saturday, to play the 18-and-above Spartans of Michigan State University.

A few weeks ago, when the United States guys played Bowling Green, they skated against a 25-year-old, who can play intercollegiate hockey under NCAA eligibility rules.

Playing older opponents encourages what hockey folks call “taking the next step.”

“It’s kind of like an early advantage for us because most of us are going to college next year,” said the forward Trevor Zegras.

Zegras is committed to Boston University and, on a recent weekend, he played for the United States against BU, Harvard and Dartmouth.

“They’re bigger and heavier,” he said. “So, kind of just have to find where you can use your skill, in terms of how big they are and how much space you have out there.”

Both Zegras and the forward Matthew Boldy are rated highly by scouting services for June's NHL draft. Some scouts believe the league could select the entire United States U18 roster.

“It definitely helps with getting yourself to the next level, knowing what you’ll have to do and what you’re going to see at the next level,” Boldy said. “I mean, it’s a big advantage for us.”

Not many hockey coaches understand the benefits of the situation, for the NTDP players or the collegians, better than the Michigan State coach, Danton Cole.

Cole coached previous classes of the NTDP guys, before returning to his alma mater as head coach.

“The first year when we’ve got all 16-year-olds, and they turn 17 after Christmas, playing in the USHL is a really big jump,” Cole said, of the major junior hockey schedule the younger U17 NTDP trainees play, annually.

“So, they play 28 to 36 games against guys that are two or three years older than them. And then, they come back to their age groups for the international tournaments.

“The second year (U18), the USHL is still a very good challenge for the guys, but it’s not quite the same as the year before,” Cole said. “So, we scheduled 17 to 20 college games.

“That’s a pretty big spread strength-wise and intelligence-wise, and it just enforces the things you’ve been learning.

“You don’t learn a lot when you have zero success. And, you don’t learn a lot when you have 100-percent success, it’s not enough of a challenge,” he said. “By playing the older guys, you want to be in that sweet spot where you have enough success.”

For the Spartans, Cole said, it affords a good exhibition game against a high-quality roster during the annual semester break.

Plus, Cole said, he can give ice time to players down roster who could use it.

“This time of year, if we don’t play a game this weekend, that would give us three weeks off before the GLI (Great Lakes Invitational Tournament),” he said.

“So, I’d rather play and give some of the other guys a chance to get some ice time.”