A Well-Traveled Path

USA Hockey’s Player Development System Takes Center Stage At All-American Prospects Game

The late, great Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

When it comes to developing top end hockey talent, that fork in the road is leading more American players down that path to success.

Nowhere was that more evident than at the fourth annual CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game as many of the 42 draft-eligible players competing at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo took different roads to get there.

Some came through USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, an elite program that provides 16 and 17 year olds with the opportunity to play against college programs, top Junior teams and compete in international competition.

But with a deeper player pool and a limited number of spots available in Plymouth, Mich., USA Hockey needed to create alternative routes to help talented youngsters reach their goals.

“We have one path, which is the National Team Development Program, which is what we believe to be the best development program for 16 and 17 year olds in the world,” said Kevin McLaughlin, senior director of hockey development.

“We have a secondary path, and it starts with Affiliate and District tryout camps.”

From those local camps, players advance to the national player development camps where two U.S. select teams are chosen to compete at overseas summer tournaments: an Under-17 team that competes at the Under-17 Five Nations and an Under-18 team that competes at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup.

“It helps us broaden the base and give kids another setting to show where they’re at in the player pool,” said Jim Johansson, assistant executive director of hockey operations.

“With that, you see them both on and off the ice, and where they fit from a leadership standpoint and competitive nature, and then obviously hockey performance.”

Thirteen players who competed at this year’s All-American Prospects Game were alumni of one U.S. Select Team or the other.

William Knierim is one of a half dozen prospects who competed at both tournaments. Those experiences, he said, helped him adjust to different styles of play while gaining valuable experience playing under the watchful eye of professional scouts. And that helped to quiet the nerves a bit in Buffalo, where approximately 150 NHL scouts and general managers were on hand looking for the next Jack Eichel.

“To be able to go overseas and play for your country and wear the crest across your chest, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and oddly enough I was able to do it twice,” said the Skokie, Ill., native who plays with the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the United States Hockey League. “And now I’m here again. I’m absolutely honored to do it.”

Derek Plante, one of the coaches for this year’s game, is very familiar with the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup and its benefits, having coached the U.S. squad at the tournament the past three years.

“It’s a great avenue for kids who aren’t at the development program. There are a lot of other kids that are also late developers,” Plante said. “This gives them an opportunity to play in some of these high-end tournaments, get some exposure against international competition.”

Although not being selected for the NTDP at 15 years old could be a blow to players’ confidence, McLaughlin pointed out that in some cases, it’s simply a matter of late development.

Many players who follow the player development camp route end up playing in the World Juniors or even in the Olympics.

For example, 2014 U.S. Olympians Dustin Brown, Max Pacioretty and Zach Parise are all products of the player development camp system. All three competed at an Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup, and Brown also skated at a U-17 Five Nations.

No matter what their path of development, the All-American Prospects Game offers every draft-eligible player the opportunity to compete and showcase his skills on an equal playing field.

“The other great thing for these kids is a lot of them always kind of feel like they have a chip on their shoulders,” said Kenny Rausch, manager of youth hockey for USA Hockey, referencing Ivan Hlinka and U-17 Five Nations alumni.

“[The Prospects game] is another chance for them to show ‘Hey, I’m a good hockey player too.’ That’s probably the best thing about this. Two years after not making the NTDP, they get to say ‘Hey, I’m as good, if not better, than some of these guys.’”



J.R. Achievement: Roenick Adds Coaching To Impressive Resume

In his 21 years as a professional hockey player, Jeremy Roenick established himself as one of the top American-born players of all time.

Inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010, Roenick’s 513 goals and 1,216 points rank him fourth in both categories among American players. He also put on the Team USA sweater six times.

Shortly after hanging up his competitve skates, Roenick turned his attention in a different direction as an NHL analyst for NBC Sports. It’s a role that is tailormade for the Boston native.

“I’m not an X’s and O’s guy, but I know the game extremely well,” Roenick said. “When I’m watching the game, I always want to grab somebody and say ‘What were you thinking? Why were you doing that? You have to do this.’”

Recently, the man most know simply as J.R. had an opportunity to impart some of that knowledge to a new audience as he served behind the bench as a head coach at the 2015 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game. Aided by assistant coach Chris Luongo, he directed 21 of the top 42 draft eligible American-born players as they competed in front of fans, scouts and general managers at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y.

“He’s just a really positive guy,” said prospect Chad Krys. “He’s been telling us just to have fun with the experience, be high energy. He likes a lot of talk out there, that’s for sure. It’s been awesome to have a guy like that coaching us, with so much NHL experience. It’s pretty cool.”

Having been in front of the camera since 2010, Roenick said he may be ready to broaden his considerable hockey resume and get into coaching.

“There’s only so much TV you can do, there’s only so much traveling you can do,” he said. “There comes a time where I think you want to use what you’ve learned and what you’ve done to help somebody else get there. That’s kind of where I’m at.”

Alyssa Girardi is the 2015-16 Brian Fishman Intern.


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