Full Circle

Looking back at the first IIHF Men's Under-18 World Championship in 1999, the format is unrecognizable. There was no round-robin play, semifinal matchups or championship game. The tournament winner was determined by a points system.

For Team USA, adapting to the tournament and the international style of play proved to be a challenge as the squad finished seventh in a 10-team race.

"It was kind of a blur," recalled John Wroblewski, a member of that U.S. Men's National Under-18 Team. "We lost an early game to Russia, and it almost felt like the tournament was over when that happened. It was really tough for a young player.

"At that point, our federation didn't have nearly the resiliency that we do now."

A lot has changed since then. Not only is the tournament format dramatically different, but the top of the podium has had a distinctive red, white and blue look to it.

And the man standing behind the Team USA bench at this year's tournament was a far cry from the fresh-faced 17-year-old boy who faced off against international competition for the first time in Fussen and Kaufbeuren, Germany.

After playing in the inaugural tournament, Wroblewski was at the helm of the team he once played on. Drawing on that experience, he led this year's U.S. squad to it's 10th gold-medal finish at the 2017 IIHF Men's Under-18 World Championship in Poprad and Spisska Nova Ves, Slovakia.

For both the coach and his players, the transition to the international arena provided a few early challenges.

"The first game, the nerves were shaking for sure, and as the tournament settled in I felt a lot calmer and I know that resonated through to the team," Wroblewski admitted.

"We made some adjustments and the guys adjusted their game. When we were a little undisciplined, the guys adjusted. We had some systematic things that didn't carry over from the North American style and we had to adjust. The credit goes to the players for being to execute on the fly."

Changing on the fly has been something that Wroblewski has done well over the years. After leaving the NTDP in 1999 to attend the University of Notre Dame, the Neenah, Wis., native embarked on a four-year pro career with the Fresno Falcons of the ECHL.

When his playing days ended, he returned to Ann Arbor, Mich., to launch his coaching career as an assistant with the NTDP. By that point, the program already collected a handful of gold medals and was well on its way to becoming the class of the international hockey community.

Since the program's onset, the emphasis on player development has changed its focus, and Wroblewski has had a front row seat to watch its growth. The continuing emphasis on individual skill development has not only paid off in the number of college scholarship and professional careers launched, but also in terms of the number of international championships won.

After serving as an assistant with the gold-medal winning team in 2010, Wroblewski left the program to continue building his coaching resume with stops in the ECHL and the American Hockey League before the lure of working with younger players brought him back to the USHL with the Youngstown Phantoms.

"I always thought pro hockey was my final destination and then you get involved in it and you start to realize you get the players better, [they are] better at their job," he said.

"But you start to miss out on some of the personal relationships and really how you can form an individual and get them ready for the next stage of their life."

At that point, returning to the NTDP didn't seem a viable option due to the established staff of veteran coaches.

"Danton [Cole] and Don Granato were still with the program so you're not really eyeing that up as something that could be a possibility," he said. "When it came ahead it was something I really wanted to be a part of."

But during the summer of 2016, Wroblewski's homecoming was complete when Granato joined his brother, Tony, at the University of Wisconsin, and the former player and assistant coach was awarded the head coaching post.

"Being at the NTDP is so special and each day really brings on a new identity. There's so many different things that you're working towards," Wroblewski said.

"The different competition levels that you're going to be facing whether it's a Div. I or a Div. III team or the USHL, or international. There's always something on the horizon that you have to focus for and it really enhances your ability to be versatile."

That versatility, along with previous international experience, came in handy at this year's U18 tournament. Teaming up behind the bench with fellow NTDP alum Greg Moore, the U.S. once again found itself perched atop the medals podium.

"I'm just really happy for the players, number one. All of their hard work is all validated after this experience," Wroblewski said. "I couldn't be happier for the federation right now. When you have the right mix of players and the right amount of character, it's going to come through at the end and those guys proved that they had it."

Catherine Bogart is the coordinator of the Internet Content and Development.




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