American-born NHL stars such as Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, David Steckel, and James van Riemsdyk each have something in common besides being American.
Each was part of USA Hockey’s national development program. With the exception of Kane, each made a stop in college hockey before making it to the highest level in professional hockey.
The Nittany Lions could be pitted up against future NHLers when they face off against the United States National Under-18 Development Team (18-7-3-4) tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
In the future, Penn State head coach Guy Gadowsky ultimately hopes that some of the top players from the program will flock to Happy Valley when they see the completed Pegula Ice Arena.
Being part of the U.S. National Development Program provides a unique opportunity to American-born hockey players with dreams of playing in the NHL. Much like universities, the program provides student athletes with the chance to get an education and play hockey at the highest level while still in high school.
There are currently 18 players on the roster that are committed to play at several top NCAA programs such as Boston College, Michigan, Minnesota and New Hampshire. However, before they get to college, players are housed by local host families and attend a local public high school in the heart of “Big Ten Country” in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Team USA head coach Don Granato said hockey and academics are importantly intertwined.
“Guys have to be very on top of time management,” Granato said. “If a guy is going to struggle in school, he is going to struggle on the ice and there will always be another guy to take his place.”
Players get selected from national selection camps that start when players are as young as 14 years old. The top 50 players from each age group that get selected form a pool of players. The U-17 and U-18 teams are then selected from that pool, Granato said.
Some players are lucky enough to make the next jump up the ladder to the U.S. Under-20 National Team, which just won the gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Russia.
With NCAA hockey being predominantly based with U.S. talent, USA Hockey has a strong relationship with many universities, Granato said. Gadowsky echoed Granato’s comments about the relationship.
“[College hockey] gets great players through their system,” Gadowsky said. “It helps prepare guys for international competition.”
Granato said one of biggest challenges is the schedule and its variety. The team faces teams from both the USHL and NCAA. Playing NCAA opponents allows players to get a taste of what NCAA hockey is like without giving up any eligibility. With international competitions, Team USA can face a fast, “high flying” team like Russia or conservative teams like Germany.
Granato said he has never been to Happy Valley, but this weekend’s trip has a little extra excitement for him.
As a player at fellow Big Ten school Wisconsin, Granato said he had to file Big Ten paperwork even though the hockey team was not part of the Big Ten conference. Wisconsin has been part of the Western Collegiate Hockey League (WCHA) since 1969 and will be one of six teams, along with Penn State, to form a Big Ten hockey conference beginning next season.
With his alma mater moving to the Big Ten and his current team having beaten the University of Michigan, the school in their backyard, 5-3, Granato said it is fun being in the position he is in.
“I’m very excited for Big Ten hockey,” Granato said. “It has great potential to raise the standard in college hockey.”
Some of Penn State’s players are excited, as well.
There is also the possibility that freshman forward Casey Bailey will get to play against a former teammate. Bailey said he is not necessarily happy about possibly facing U.S. netminder Thatcher Demko because he is tough to score on. So far this season, Demko has played 22 games with a 13-5-3 record, 2.22 goals-against average and .905 save percentage.
Bailey and Demko spent last season with the Omaha Lancers (USHL). Bailey led the team with 27 goals while Demko was the backup goaltender.