Plymouth Township — John Wroblewski was there at the beginning, the first roster of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in 1997.
Wroblewski now coaches the program’s men’s under-18 team, has for the last two years. He kept close tabs on the progress all the time between, watching as the program brought in premier young players and making the USA an annual championship contender while sending sublime talent to the NHL.
It’s been a tremendous rise, maybe beyond most people’s expectations.
“Starting off we had some tough sledding out of the gate,” Wroblewski said. “Like most things, it doesn’t happen overnight. You build momentum, it takes time, and we got in a groove and started winning medals.
“We’re at a point where it’s a landmark for kids. I have to imagine when you’re 10 or 11 or 12-years-old, they already have their eyes on Plymouth and wanting to be part of the NTDP.
“That’s what we’ve grown into. There’s a lot of people who have had a huge hand in it.”
Next month at the NHL Entry Draft the USA NTDP has, generally speaking in most mock drafts, six of the top 20-25 players who either played this season or graduated from the program a year ago.
Defensemen Quinn Hughes (Michigan), Mattias Samuelsson and Bode Wilde, and forwards Oliver Wahlstrom, Brady Tkachuk and Joel Farabee are players who will hear their names called early in the draft. All have pushed each other while in the NTDP, one of the reasons the program has been successful.
“You challenge yourself against the best kids in the country in your age bracket every day,” said Scott Monaghan, NTDP senior director of operations, and an original member of the program.
“Practice is hard,” said Monaghan, who has overseen 10 gold-medal winning under-18 world championship teams. “You challenge yourself in the weight room against the guy next to you who is your peer. You push each other and that’s what they do. They push each other first when they come in and they’re timid and away from home, and they think to themselves, ‘What is going on, what am I doing here?’
“It’s a 12-hour day, but they settle in and become a team, a unit, a group and they begin to push each other. One guy is getting better and another guy has to catch up. They have pride in themselves and that’s a big part of it.”
Both the under-18 and under-17 teams out of the NTDP play a challenging schedule, facing opposition usually a year or two — or for the under-18 when playing college teams, some four years older.
“The young guys, 16 and just turning 17, they’re playing junior hockey (USHL) where most guys are 18-19, so they get the daylights beat out of them, especially early on,” Monaghan said.
“Then they learn how to play. At first, they’re fighting to just get the puck, let alone do anything with it.
“As they get comfortable, they reach a point where they say ‘enough’, we can compete with these guys.”
Wroblewski has lived through it, and understands the pride that is involved, not just from a personal level, but wearing the jersey.
“It comes with getting to wear the jersey, and for representing your country,” Wroblewski said. “The allure of playing international events and getting to wear (the national jersey) on a daily basis … if we had just some random program sponsored by USA Hockey, that didn’t offer the opportunities to play internationally, I’m not sure if it would have taken off as it has.”
Moving to USA Hockey Arena (formerly Compuware Arena) in 2015 from Ann Arbor’s Ice Cube has also invigorated the NTDP.
The weight room has expanded from 3,000 to nearly 9,800 square feet, modern offices, and seating for 3,5000.
“We inherited a good facility and the community support has been outstanding,” Monaghan said.
But Monaghan feels another strength of the NTDP is its constant eye toward the future.
“We never try to be standing still,” Monaghan said. “You can never be satisfied. This is a pilot program and it’s always going to be a pilot program and at its best, we’re thinking, ‘What can we do differently’.”
The USA National Team Development Program will be well represented in June’s NHL Entry Draft. Here are some potential first-round picks.
■ Quinn Hughes, 5-foot-10, 174 pounds, defenseman: Starred at Michigan this past season, and currently playing for USA at the world championships. “There’s probably no more dynamic player in this class,” coach John Wroblewski said. “This guy never looks like he’s moving at top speed but he’s able to accelerate past the other team.”
■ Oliver Wahlstrom, 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, right wing: Physically, Wahlstrom is ready for the NHL. “The first thing you notice is an imposing figure on the ice,” Wroblewski said. “He’s sturdy, built like a man. When the puck hits his stick, it’ll explode off it. He has a cannon, he can score from anywhere.”
■ Brady Tkachuk, 6-foot-3, 196 pounds, left wing: Son of former NHLer Keith Tkachuk. “They’re similar in they have attitude and Brady will score goals around the net, his dynamic is brute force,” Wroblewski said. “But Brady can get up and go. He can get up the sheet, he can skate. He can make things happen with his speed.”
■ Bode Wilde, 6-foot-3, 195 pounds, defensemen: Top offensive defenseman on the national team. “You look at right-shot defensemen as a commodity, and he is a player who can make things happen,” Wroblewski said.
■ Joel Farabee, 6-foot, 165 pounds, left wing: A small, skilled player, like many the past few years, who have entered the NHL with many skills. “He’s one of the most useful players in the draft this year,” Wroblewski said. “I can imagine him sliding into a team’s 4th-line and move up to a top line with his skill and ability.”
■ Mattias Samuelsson, 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, defensemen: His father Kjell played 14 years in the NHL. “Mattias is a big, rangy left-shot who, to me, could be a 15-year stalwart,” Wroblewski said.