The Future is NOW

CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game Shows The Depth Of The Homegrown Talent Pool

Noah Hanifin is rated among the  top defensemen eligible for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.Noah Hanifin is rated among the top defensemen eligible for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.

 

When Eddie Olczyk was 17 years old, he was skating as part of the famed Diaper Line with fellow youngsters Pat LaFontaine and David A. Jensen at the 1984 Olympic Winter Games.

At the time, even in the wake of the “Miracle On Ice,” American players were just starting to catch the eye of NHL scouts. So, when Olczyk’s hometown Chicago Blackhawks made him the 3rd overall pick in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, it surprised many who had still not warmed up to the idea that Americans could compete at the highest level of the game.

A lot of frozen water has flowed under the bridge since then. Olczyk would go on to enjoy a 16-year NHL career, including the Stanley Cup victory in 1994, followed by a brief stint as head coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins before becoming one of the game’s most respected television analysts.

And here he was, inside a club-level suite at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center, sharing a lifetime of hockey wisdom with a roomful of players the same age as he was when he slipped on the red, white and blue in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

“Don’t be in a hurry,” said Olczyk, who could have just as easily been speaking to his own sons, all of whom are following in dad’s skate tracks. “That’s the one piece of advice I can give you. Let things happen, and you’ll do great things.”

Considering that his message was being delivered to 42 of the top American players poised to perform in the 2014 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, such a prediction was a pretty safe bet for Olczyk, who was returning to the bench to coach a team named in his honor.

Among those listening intently to Olczyk’s fatherly advice was Jack Eichel, considered by many the brightest American star to hit the big ice since Patrick Kane.

Much like Kane, whose hometown of Buffalo has become somewhat of the unofficial host for this annual showcase event, Eichel is predicted by many to become the seventh American to hear his name called first at the annual NHL Entry Draft.

“It’s just part of this experience. I try not to think about it. It is what it is,” the North Chelmsford, Mass., native said. “The 2015 NHL Draft is in June, and we’re only in September. I’m just trying to enjoy myself and keep getting better.”

After the NHL's Central Scouting placed Jack Eichel at the top of the 2015 draft class, he was the center of attention in Buffalo.After the NHL's Central Scouting placed Jack Eichel at the top of the 2015 draft class, he was the center of attention in Buffalo.

 

To do that, Eichel is sticking close to home to help resurrect the once proud Boston University program that produced a plethora of NHL stars, including Olczyk’s coaching counterpart Mike Grier, who touted his four years with the Terriers as the best route for him to reach the big leagues.

“Enjoy the process,” said Grier, whose NHL career lasted more than 1,000 games. “Everyone is going to take a different path to the NHL; the key is to take your time and enjoy the ride.”

A number of players are following that advice as 31 prospects are either currently playing in college or have verbally committed to NCAA programs, including nine players who have earned an “A” rating from the NHL’s Central Scouting.

Like most showcase events, the final score — a 6-3 victory for Team Grier — was irrelevant other than the short-lived bragging rights that lasted as long as it took players to gather their gear and head back to their teams, or back on the bus for the six-hour ride back to Ann Arbor, Mich., the home of the 15 players representing the National Team Development Program.

More importantly, this showcase not only highlighted the skills of 42 individuals, many of whom will one day wear the NHL colors. On a grander scale, with players representing 15 states and the District of Columbia, it represented the continued growth of hockey from coast to coast.

“This speaks to where USA Hockey has come in a short period of time when you think about the big picture,” Olczyk said. “There are a lot of good players who aren’t here, but I think it speaks to USA Hockey’s depth to give these kids an unbelievable opportunity on a great stage.”

Ultimately, the game was the big winner. It wasn’t that long ago that such an all-star game wouldn’t have been possible with a talent pool as deep as a mud puddle. But the rapid ascent of the American player has made this third annual Prospects Game not only a possibility, but more importantly,  an essential date on the calendars of the 200 NHL scouts who were scattered among the announced record crowd of 7,310.

“I think it’s a great showcase. You see the talent out there, and you can put it up against any country in the world,” Grier said.

“We’re right there to be able to compete with anybody.”

 

 

Photos courtesy of Steve DeMeo
Issue: 
2014-11

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