The Evolution of U.S. Hockey

The “Miracle on Ice” celebrated its 36th anniversary this week. On February 22, 1980, one of the most famous hockey games took place between the U.S. and the Soviet Olympic team in Lake Placid, New York. It became one of the great moments of hockey history when the Americans surprisingly defeated the Soviets 4-2. Since then, a lot of things have changed and American hockey has been on the rise, especially in the past few years.

In honor of this very special moment in the history of American hockey, let’s have a quick look at some of the best American-born players of the past, the current and the future. Surely, there would be more great names to mention in this article but I have limited myself to three players:

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The great ones:

  • Mike Modano (Minnesota, Dallas, Detroit)
  • Brett Hull (Calgary, St. Louis, Dallas, Detroit, Phoenix)
  • Chris Chelios (Montreal, Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta)

The current ones:

  • Patrick Kane (Chicago)
  • Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles)
  • Zach Parise (New Jersey, Minnesota)

The next ones:

  • Auston Matthews (USA U18, ZSC)
  • Jack Eichel (USA U18, Boston University, Buffalo)
  • Dylan Larkin (USA U18, University of Michigan, Detroit)

A very important date in the history of American hockey is the year 1996 when USA Hockey founded the National Team Development Program (NTDP). Because the U.S. was lacking international success at junior level, they felt like changing their way of developing young players.

“We looked around and said, ‘We’ve got good players, what do we need to do?” said Scott Monaghan, an original member of the NTDP and now its senior director of operations. “The genesis was how do we take our best guys and focus on improving them and setting new bars that help other groups in the United States bring their level of development up.”

The following is a program description from USA Hockey, which is published on their website:

The National Team Development Program is the pinnacle of USA Hockey’s amateur player development program. The NTDP scouts and selects the top 22 players in two age groups (Under-17 and Under-18) to train and develop in a highly competitive environment. The two teams (Under-17 and Under-18) face a rigorous domestic schedule including competition against older, more developed players. The Under-17 Team plays a majority of a 60-game junior schedule in the United States Hockey League against opponents whose age range is 17-20. The Under-18 Team ‘shares’ the junior schedule, playing about 25 games, while also playing a challenging schedule against top NCAA Division I and III teams (ages 18-24).

The goal of the program is to have the best U.S. players in the same age range together in a team and have the best possible and most professional development for them. Competing against older and more matured players in the USHL and NCAA helps them getting a high-level of competitiveness in strength, speed and skill. Especially strength is a highly respectable value within USA Hockey and the weight room is usually a busy place in the facilities of the NTDP.

“On the ice, the kids are passionate,” coach Don Granato said. “It’s not going to be hard to implement systems or develop their skill because they’re made for the ice. But I wanted to make sure we hammer them in the weight room, and if we need rest and have to shorten or cancel a practice, I’m willing to do that.”

The professional work off the ice is a big success factor for U.S. prospects in my opinion. They are usually ahead of other countries prospects in terms of strength, professionalism, compete level and shot quality. The NTDP produces highly competitive players and when they leave the program they are well prepared for the next step which often is a college commitment and playing at NHL at a later stage of the career. Powerful skaters and workhorses such as Coyotes draftee Christian Fischer or 2016 eligible James Sanchez are typical products of the NTDP.

The U.S. has won two bronze medals in the past three World Championship tournaments and won two silver medals in the last four Olympic games. The dominance at U18 level is really impressive as the U.S. has won medals in 12 straight tournaments including eight gold medals during that stretch. They have been very successful also at U20 level.

However, despite all the latest success at junior level, the NTDP had a rough start. Alumni Jordan Leopold remembers his days with the program. He did not have it easy as a Minnesotan who joined the Michigan-located NTDP, something that not everyone liked to see.

“It was very controversial at the time,” Leopold said. “I remember being invited on to a radio show to talk about it, me and some veteran media guys. They fed me to the wolves. I was 16. We learned the tough way,” Leopold said. “We got beat up playing OHL teams. The Canadians hated us.”

This all is in the past and the reputation of American hockey is as high as never before, at least this is my observation when scouting games at any level, from U17 until professional hockey. NTDP alumni’s such as Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, Phil Kessel and Zach Parise show that the program is on the right track.

The U.S. will continue to challenge Canada as the number one country in hockey together with the top European countries. They are on the right track and will be in the mix for medals for the coming years, not only at junior level but also at the highest possible level.