Future of U.S. hockey is on display this weekend

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Plymouth — Team USA played out the string against the Czech Republic in the World Cup tournament Thursday, while some of the young Americans who hope someday to represent their country in the tournament skated in the National Team Development Program (NTDP) in the USA Hockey Arena.

For the World Cup, the reviews are mostly in. They are sharply negative, after a USA team built for physical play failed to measure up to the skill and speed of opponents who had little trouble with any rough stuff.

The evaluation of the development players, the under-17 year olds and under-18 year old players recruited around the country from among the premier players in their age groups, begins in earnest this weekend.

Their junior hockey seasons begin.

Housed on Beck Road in the former Compuware Sports Arena, the NTDP is the premier youth training program for USA Hockey. In addition to international junior games and tournaments, the players compete in the country’s only tier one junior hockey league, the USHL.

At 7 p.m. Friday the U-17 team opens the season against Muskegon in USA Hockey Arena.

At 7 p.m. Saturday the U-18 team opens the season versus Youngstown, also at home.

“I think the USHL games are really, really important,” said Danton Cole, the U-17 coach who played four years for Michigan State before a 318-game NHL career with the Jets, Lightning, Devils, Islanders and Blackhawks.

“The level of play, the speed of play, the strength and the quality of their players; for our guys to play against that kind of competition is outstanding.

“The first year especially, it pulls our guys along and makes them overlearn things,” Cole said of the 15 and 16-year-olds, who must often skate against 18 and 19-year olds in the USHL. “If we don’t do things right and really, really well, we don’t have success.

“So, it’s a really good learning tool. But it’s a hard learning tool.”

In their second year, the results on the scoreboard are naturally a bit more critical.

“And, in the second year, when they get a little more comfortable with the USHL we throw some college games at them and we challenge them even further.”

For informed, perceptive fans, watching these USHL games can bring rewards beyond those of the NHL.

“If you look at the guys who come through and you follow the team through a two-year cycle, it’s incredibly rewarding for us as coaches and for fans to see a guy like Clayton Keller (Coyotes 2016 first-round pick, Boston University) who went through last year. And then you see guys like Auston Matthews (Maple Leafs 2016 first-round pick) and Jack Eichel (Sabres 2015 first round pick) and Dylan Larkin (Red Wings 2014 first-round pick),” Cole said.

“You can really catch some of these high, high-end guys at the ground floor and watch them progress. It’s amazing to see how much better they get year over year, just the process.”

Quinn Hughes, 17, of Orlando, Florida, a defenseman committed to Michigan, said the USHL games help establish accountability, even as the team anticipates some international junior competition, too.

“It’s a developmental program, but I think we’ve got a lot of competitive people and we all want to win,” Hughes said. “Especially as a U-18 team, we don’t want to lose. We want to do the best we can.

“Winning is important, and it is definitely something that holds us accountable.”

Jonathan Gruden, 16, of Rochester Hills, said good development leads to wins.

“It’s a development program for a reason,” said Gruden, who is committed to Miami (Ohio) and scored a hat trick against Johnstown in a preseason game. “We really concentrate on developing.

“But with development comes success. If we work hard, wins will come.”

K’andre Miller, 16, of Hopkins, Minnesota, is a defenseman scouts say has considerable potential and who has committed to Wisconsin.

“Obviously, it’s hard playing against these older guys, with their size, speed and skill,” said Miller, who is already rangy. “So getting a win when we can is always nice.”


Twitter.com: @greggkrupa