By: Topher Scott
Team USA won its fourth gold medal since 2010 at the World Junior Championships last week. Considering the fact that we hadn’t won a single tournament in its first 26 years of existence, I’d say that’s a stat we can be pretty proud of.
First off…what a gold medal game. I mean, WOW. That was some of the best hockey I’ve seen in a long time. The pace, competitiveness, skill, and passion – it had me out of my seat for the entire game.
As an American, watching the players celebrate after the game was a cool thing to see. Especially thinking about how far we’ve come as a country in this game.
We now have won more World Junior titles than Canada since 2010 and are undoubtedly a hockey powerhouse around the world.
So after 26 years of zero gold medals…what caused this turnaround? What’s the reason for USA Hockey’s rise in this international tournament over the past decade or so? I’ve got four reasons for you below.
1. Wayne Gretzky
When Wayne Gretzky got traded to the LA Kings, it opened up the league to franchises in non-traditional places that are starting to produce some really good hockey players. And with that we now have a WAY bigger player pool than we did over 30 years ago when Gretzky made his move to Southern California.
With new franchises in places like Colorado, Arizona, Texas, and Florida, it attracted a whole new generation of players and families that fell in love with the sport of hockey. Case in point:
The top American player right now, Auston Matthews, is from Arizona. The captain of the World Junior Team this year, Cam York, is from Anaheim.
While most of the players at the highest level are still coming from your traditional hockey hotbeds, we’re starting to see a ton of success at the younger levels from your non-traditional hockey markets as well. With a growing talent pool and more athletes in non-traditional markets choosing hockey as their number one sport, it will continue to be a recipe for success for the U.S. for years to come.
If I’m USA Hockey – I’m rooting like hell for those Southern and Western NHL teams to do well. It will bring more and more players into the fold with the excitement that winning teams can bring to a city.
2. Retired NHL Players Coaching
Players get better with good coaching. And who better to coach (for the most part) than retired NHL players who have kids playing hockey and want to give back to the game?
We are seeing more and more ex-NHL players stick around to raise their families in cities where they played during their pro careers. And when they eventually have kids that are old enough to play, they are stepping in to coach.
The most notable example of this phenomenon is Keith Tkachuk and Jeff Brown. They coached a group of kids (including their own) from St. Louis that had 5 first round draft picks in 2016.
5 FIRST ROUND NHL DRAFT PICKS IN ONE YEAR. FROM ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI.
On this year’s NTDP U18 team alone, there are three players whose Dads played in the NHL (Ryan St. Louis, Caden Brown, and Red Savage). And all of their Dads are Canadian.
NHL players want a place to retire that’s comfortable, their familiar with, and where they have ties for future business opportunities. And now that many of these American NHL cities have sustainable youth hockey programs from the excitement brought by their NHL franchises, it’s a no-brainer to stick around for their kids’ youth hockey experiences as well.
3. The National Team Development Program
For those that aren’t familiar, USA Hockey chooses around forty of the best 16- and 17-year-olds from around the country every year to play for the NTDP located in Plymouth, Michigan. This program is an absolute lab for hockey development, with USA Hockey investing a ton of money into the growth and advancement of the players that make it.
When the program first started in the late 1990’s, that was met with a ton of skepticism.
Should a country’s governing body invest all of this money and manpower into a handful of kids? Couldn’t those resources be better used to serve other areas of the country?
Those are certainly fair points.
But I’d argue that with the NTDP churning out so many American superstars and helping USA Hockey to be a threat to win every international tournament, it’s elevated the notoriety of the game in our country and brought so many more kids in through that excitement.
Kids seeing Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane, or Jack Hughes going Number One overall in the NHL draft…that’s a big deal.
Kids watching Team USA win World Juniors…that’s a big deal.
And where did many of these players develop? The NTDP. Let’s take a look at some of the other young American NHL superstars who played for the program:
Jack Eichel. Seth Jones. Phil Kessel. Matthew Tkachuk. Brady Tkachuk. Zach Werenski. Charlie McAvoy. Alex Tuch. Adam Fox. Clayton Keller. Dylan Larkin. And the list goes on.
The NTDP has become a well-oiled machine with really smart and dedicated hockey people leading the way. Former coaches like John Hynes and David Quinn are now head coaches in the NHL. Current coaches Dan Muse and Adam Nightingale both coached in the NHL last year while last year’s coaches, Seth Appert and John Wroblewski, both got Head Coaching jobs this year in the AHL.
Their scouting program in identifying the nation’s top talent has done an incredible job bringing in the right players. Lead now by Kevin Reiter and Rod Braceful, in a torch passed on by Ryan Hardy and Jeremiah Crowe (now the Director of Scouting for the Buffalo Sabres), this group has built the NTDP into the powerhouse it is today.
And if you ask any kid that has gone through the program, it ain’t easy. They play a grueling schedule filled with games against USHL and NCAA programs…not to mention the international tournaments they attend. Their strength coach Brian Galivan is one of the best in the business (we had him on our podcast, check it out). They push the kids HARD, make them face adversity, and really prepare them for the next levels of hockey.
With that experience, the players on the NTDP form a brotherhood. And many of the kids that play on World Junior teams come from the NTDP. On this year’s team alone, 16 players out of the 25 on the roster played with the program.
World Juniors is the last time those guys will play together. There’s a familiarity and a bond that the other teams don’t have as many of the American players spent two grueling but exhilarating years playing together. It’s a special “last hoorah” to try and finish what they started from when they arrived in Plymouth three or four years prior.
You could recognize that bond and brotherhood watching the US over the course of this tournament. It’s a huge reason why they came out with the gold.
4. The ADM and Coaching Education
In 2009 USA Hockey instituted the ADM (American Development Model), a framework for our players, coaches, parents, and administrators to follow “to help all individuals realize their athletic potential and utilize sport as a path toward an active and healthy lifestyle.”
The ADM isn’t perfect and certainly has its critics, but I think it’s provided our coaches with some valuable resources and perspectives that can make our players better. By emphasizing principles like age-appropriate development, multi-sport athletes, and teaching skill through competition and small area games, USA Hockey has given us a framework of development that’s heavily researched and explored around the world.
Does everyone follow the ADM? No. Is it the sole reason for USA’s rise in international ranks like some like to say? No. But is it a valuable framework that I think everyone should consider while coaching their teams? Absolutely.
USA Hockey has invested heavily over the last few years in reshaping their coaching education platform as well. To make the players better, you have to invest in making the coaches better.
I admittedly was not a huge fan of the coaching education program when I was first introduced to it. But they’ve taken some huge steps forward into reforming it into a program that can have a much deeper impact on the coaches in our country.
They have made their coaching seminars and clinics much more collaborative. Rather than sitting for a day or two listening to repetitive presentations, the seminars now are much more cooperative with two-way learning where the coaches learn from each other along with the higher level guest speakers that come to share their knowledge.
I think this is going to lead to a much more engaged coaching body that is excited about USA Hockey. With that, it will help to solve one of the biggest problems USA Hockey has with the ADM – Buy In. And with that greater buy in from youth coaches for the ADM principles, the better our players will become.
So thank you, Wayne. Thank you to the many retired NHL players for sticking around and getting into youth hockey. Thank you to those at the NTDP and USA Hockey for investing their time and effort into making our players and coaches better.
But most of all, thank you to all of the amazing parents, volunteers, and everyone who makes the youth hockey experience possible. Without your dedication to making a positive impact on the kids, none of this would be possible. You are the lifeblood of our game and we’re grateful for your efforts.
Let’s Keep er Goin’.