It was a late Sunday afternoon in Tampa, Florida and just moments ahead of the 63rd annual NHL All-Star Game, four players posed at center ice for a photo. The four were Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres), Noah Hanifin (Carolina Hurricanes), Zach Werenski (Columbus Blue Jackets), and Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs). What could the quartet possibly have in common? They were teammates at the United States National Team Development Program (NTDP).
On June 2, the NHL hosted its annual Draft Combine, and among those invited were 18 players who have played for NTDP at one point in their young careers. Fifteen of those players are listed in the top 50 for North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
What Is the NTDP?
Founded by USA Hockey in 1996, the program carefully selects the best teenage hockey players across the United States, 18 years of age and younger. From those talented few, two teams are created. The Under-17 (U-17s) and the Under-18 (U-18s) teams split a schedule in the United States Hockey League (USHL). In addition, the two teams participate in international competition, and the U-18s also have games against NCAA Division I and III opponents in their busy schedule.
Since its inception, the program has been responsible for developing some of the best talents the NHL has to offer, including Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks), Phil Kessel (Pittsburgh Penguins), Justin Faulk (Carolina Hurricanes), Seth Jones (Columbus Blue Jackets), and Matthew Tkachuk (Calgary Flames). In fact, 61 players who once played for the NTDP made their NHL team’s opening-night roster this past season.
The team plays its home games at the state-of-the-art USA Hockey Arena, purchased and renovated by USA Hockey in 2015. The building has two rinks, one that is NHL regulation size and another that meets Olympic regulations, helping the team prepare for international tournaments. The arena seats over 3,500 and provides the players with first-class facilities including a kitchen, a lounge, a training room, a full workout space, as well as cold and hot tubs. Each team has its own locker room.
Between the two rosters from last season, only four players were from Michigan, the state the program calls home in the town of Plymouth. With that, the 17 and 18-year-olds who come from out-of-town billet, staying with families who live within close proximity to the rink.
For most of them, it is the first time away from their parents for an extended period of time, and the billet families are a crucial piece to the program as they allow the players to focus on hockey (and school) rather what they’ll be eating for dinner or how their laundry is going to get done.
“Over the course of 11 months, my billets have been one of the best parts of the program,” says the U-17s’ captain, Marshall Warren, who hails from Laurel Hollow, Long Island. “They are so engaging and are a great family to be a part of. They’re so welcoming and I know every billet parent tries their best to make the best food and to be there for their kid whenever (they) need support.”
The older, stronger, and bigger competition is one of the main reasons that the NTDP is the best development program there is. Players are basically forced to elevate their game when playing against 21-year-old men, which eases the transition into college hockey and professional hockey.
“Older competition has helped me become physically and mentally quicker, every day is a challenge. Every-time I step on the ice I know it’s like going to war,” says Boston College commit Patrick Moynihan.
NTDP Is a Program on the Rise
The crazy part is that the program is only getting better. According to our very own Ryan Pike, six NTDP players and alumni could be selected in the first round of this year’s draft.
Nearly every single player on the U-17 and U-18 roster is committed to playing hockey at a Division I college with the exception of Jack Hughes, the early favorite to be the first overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. If Hughes does go first overall he will be the fifth NTDP player to accomplish such putting him in the same category as Matthews, Kane, Rick DiPietro (former New York Islanders goaltender), and Erik Johnson (drafted by the St. Louis Blues, currently with the Colorado Avalanche).
This past season, Team USA (combined record of the U-17s and the U-18s) made the Clark Cup Playoffs (USHL playoffs) for the third time in the program’s history and for the first time in five seasons. Not only did they make the playoffs, but they set some records on the way and finished first in the Eastern Conference.
Internationally, the team went undefeated en route to victories at the 2017 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Canada and the 2017 Under-17 Four Nations Tournament in Russia.
“We were young but we knew how to win and enjoy it,” says Harvard University commit Sean Farrell. “During the year we faced some adversity playing older guys, but it only made us stronger.”
While their dream season eventually came to an end after losing to the Youngstown Phantoms in the Eastern Conference Final, it was an almost record-setting year. Cole Caulfield, 17, and his 54 goals fell one shy of Matthews’ record set during the 2014-15 season, but it still puts him ahead of NHL superstars like Kane and Kessel. Hughes also a fell a point shy of a Matthews’ record, picking up 116 points in 60 games but set the record for assists with 76, passing Calder Trophy finalist Clayton Keller.
Twenty-two years after its inception, the United States National Team Development Program continues to develop and prepare a new wave of American hockey players but the program is only getting better.