The United States is the reigning IIHF World U18 and U20 champion and the men’s Olympic team lost the gold medal game in overtime. Unlike the 1980 Olympic gold, the current success is no miracle. The explanation is the National Team Development Program (NTDP) in Ann Arbor.
The 1990s was a period of great advancement and development of hockey in the United States. Wayne Gretzky was doing his thing in California; more Americans than ever were being drafted into the NHL, not just in the first round, but throughout the draft; and, the children who watched the Miracle on Ice in 1980 were now bona fide NHLers. The 1991 appearance in the Canada Cup finals was a prelude to the 1996 World Cup, the loss in the former turning into a watermark victory in the latter.
Still, something was missing. There wasn’t much cohesiveness to USA Hockey, and apart from this historic World Cup win in 1996, there wasn’t yet a sense of the country as a hockey power. But in ’96, the organization decided to try something new. It would gather together the best 44-46 kids in the country and put them in one place for two years, nurturing them, teaching them the game and the USA Hockey program, and giving them a focus.
“Jeff Jackson was our first coach,” Scott Monaghan recalled of the beginnings of the National Team Development Program. “His job was to build elite teams for 16- and 17-year-olds, to give a group of kids the chance to get better, to understand what it takes to succeed, and to give them international experience. Before this, there was no regular schedule, nothing that prepared kids for the U20s or higher levels hockey.”
Enter Bob Mancini, the first director of player personnel. He was the first man in charge of developing a network of part-time scouts (bird dogs, they used to say) to create a list of potential players for the program. This process started well before players were actually invited.
“We evaluate kids starting at about 14 on the sly,” Monaghan explained. “But we don’t communicate with them, just evaluate. We go to select festivals and narrow the pool of players, and then in March before they join the program we hold a tryout camp for 40 to 45 players of 15-year-olds. It also gives them a chance to evaluate us, to see if the program is right for them.”
From this camp most of the players are selected for the NTDP, but not all. Monaghan is quick to point out two of its star alumni – Patrick Kane and Eric Nystrom – were the last players selected in their year. In all, there are two teams of 22-23 players each that will compete at the U17 and U18 levels, before they go off to college, junior hockey, or, in rare cases, the NHL, at age 18.
Although the program is restricted to 44-46 players a year, there are an additional 10-20 players who benefit throughout the season as well. “We have injuries or add players for specific tournaments at times, so we always have extra players who gain from the program even for a short period,” Monaghan explained.
The program is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the centre of the hockey universe in the United States in many respects. It’s a short flight or bus ride to many states where the teams will play their games, and it’s a great small city of about 100,000 with an excellent hospital. Players are billeted and don’t stay in dorms, a conscious decision on the part of USA Hockey to ensure the kids live in a home environment with local families.
The daily lives of the players is nothing if not intense. A typical day sees them get up at 6:30-7:00am and be in school by 7:30am for six hours of classes. After lunch, they are on the ice at about 3:00pm for two hours, then they go to the gym or do off-ice training for another hour. They’re home by 6:00pm for dinner and do their homework in the evening.
“It’s a busy day and a hard place to be,” Monaghan admits. “It’s definitely not for everybody.”
On paper and in hockey history, the program has been a major success for American hockey. The team has consistently done well at the junior events in the last decade, and as we head into the U20 in Buffalo, the U.S. is reigning U20 and U18 champions. For the program in general, however, success is measured differently.
“If a player has a successful experience in Ann Arbor, I think he leaves with three or four areas of development,” Monaghan explains. “First, he has to have grown as a player. Second, he has to be an excellent student. We stress the importance of academics every day. And, he has to have developed as a person. He has to understand life is a balance, no matter how great or talented a hockey player he may be. If a player has all these things going for him when he leaves, we believe the program has been a success.”
There is a final level of success to measure the program by, and that is senior international experience. Of course, it’s easy for a player to say yes to his country when he’s asked to play at the Olympics, but a far more demanding task to commit to the World Championship at the end of a long season.
By teaching kids at formidable ages about the importance of playing for their country, USA Hockey has seen a noticeable improvement in the teams it sends to the Worlds every year.
“There’s no question the NTDP has had a positive effect in this regard,” Monaghan agrees. “It’s been a gradual effect, but we think kids who understand USA Hockey through the NTDP are more likely to go than a generation ago.”