Success mollifies program critics

Updated: January 5, 2004, 11:33 AM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

HELSINKI, Finland -- For USA Hockey, Monday's gold-medal game between the national team and Canada represents another statement about its controversial National Team Development Program.

A victory, which would be the first ever for Team USA at the World Junior Championship would give everyone at the home office in Colorado Springs, Colo., reason to crow. After all, the 22-man roster includes 15 players who've spent at least one year in the program.

On the other hand, a loss might open the door to more debate about the NTDP, which is based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"No doubt, this is a measuring stick for our team and for the program at Ann Arbor," said U.S. coach Mike Eaves, who directed the program for two seasons (2000-01) before leaving to become the coach at the University of Wisconsin.

The program, which was originally directed by former Lake Superior State coach Jeff Jackson (now an assistant with the New York Islanders), began in 1996. The idea was simple: identify the best young American hockey prospects and bring them to a central location for training and development. USA Hockey allocated about $2 million for the first season. That money went into a state-of-the-art training facility, a top-shelf weight room and a program for 46 players.

Typically, the program is for 16- and 17-year-olds, who are identified through tournaments, most notably the select festival for 15-year-olds. Players are either recruited or they can try out at a special evaluation camp in Ann Arbor. If a player accepts an invitation, he moves in with a host family and attends the local public high school.

The Under-17 team plays North American Hockey League games, other junior opponents and international competitions. The Under-18 team faces Division I to Division III U.S. colleges, NAHL and USHL teams, and international competition. Each team plays about 60 games per season.

The coaches and administrators who were against the idea of the program, including the late Herb Brooks, had two main criticisms. First, they felt that too much money was being spent on too few kids. Second, they didn't like losing their best players to a national program.

The arrival of Mike Eaves in 2000 marked a turning point. A former NHL player with pro coaching experience in both North America and Europe, Eaves was a more eloquent speaker and smoother salesman than Jackson. He was better able to sell the idea, especially to hockey people in Minnesota who wanted to keep their best kids in the state's high school system. Plus, Eaves was a top-notch coach.

"Mike Eaves coming to that program gave it a huge lift," says former Calgary GM Craig Button, who lived in Ann Arbor during the first years of the program. "He's a progressive, creative young coach who understands the process of developing young players. He was a perfect fit for that job."

The program got another boost in May 2002 when the U.S. national team skated away with the gold medal at the Under-18 tournament in Slovakia. Coach Eaves and exactly half (11) of his current players were part of that team.

The program took a bit of hit after former NHLer Moe Mantha, who took over for Eaves as NTDP coach, abruptly left his post in October. John Hynes replaced Mantha in early November, and is working as an assistant under Eaves in Helsinki.

A victory over Canada would solidify the future of the program. A loss, although nothing to be ashamed of, might stir some new debate.

Notes

  • Russia defeated Slovakia 3-2 to secure fifth place. Russian phenom Alexander Ovechkin received a five-minute elbowing major and a game misconduct with 6:46 left in regulation. Ovechkin hammered Slovakian forward Stefan Ruzicka with a high hit in front of the Russian bench. The hit wasn't an elbow. And you could make a case that it wasn't worthy of a penalty. However, Ruzicka was cut on the play, and he stayed down on the ice. That was enough for referee Vladimir Sindler, who issued the major penalty. Before leaving the ice, Ovechkin showed good sportsmanship by apologizing to Ruzicka at the Slovakia bench. Apparently, Ruzicka's injury wasn't too serious as he returned to action less than a minute later. As for Ovechkin, he took a seat in the second row -- in full equipment -- and watched the remainder of the game, signing autographs for young kids in the crowd. Barring the unforeseen, Ovechkin will be the first player selected at the NHL draft in June.

  • If you're one of those fans who'd like to see the NHL remove the red line, you might want to think twice. The Finnish Elite League, which has played without the red line for several seasons, plans to restore the center stripe next season. The league feels the game has become a series of misguided long passes, which, combined with the automatic icing rule, lead to an inordinate number of stoppages for icing. Finnish officials would like to restore the red line in all levels of hockey throughout the country. However, they are prohibited from doing so by IIHF rules. The Finns say that playing without the red line has made if difficult to develop young defensemen. They say that kids have become less interested in playing the position because they aren't as involved in the offense. With no red line, defenders are asked to make long passes. And because of the threat of a hanging forward behind them, they can't pinch and attack from the point. Rather, they must circle in the neutral zone to defend against the long breakout pass. That just isn't any fun. These days, Finnish kids are more interested in becoming goalies. Why? They think the masks are cool.

  • Team USA didn't practice on Sunday, opting to get extra rest for Monday night's gold medal showdown against Canada. The two countries have met in the World Under-20 gold medal game on one other occasion. In 1997, in Geneva, Switzerland, Canada won 2-0. Edmonton's Brad Isbister and Detroit's Boyd Devereaux scored for Canada. Columbus goalie Marc Denis earned the shutout for the red and white. That Canadian club was coached by Anaheim coach Mike Babcock and featured future Boston star Joe Thornton. The American team included Edmonton's Mike York and Phoenix's Brian Boucher. Team USA's silver medal is its best finish to date at the tournament.

  • Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby, who is 16 years old and not eligible for the NHL draft until 2005, is a fixture on the club's power-play unit. The left-shooting center has been directing the first unit from the right wing half-boards. At even strength, coach Mario Durocher has used Crosby on a fourth line with left wing Jeff Tambellini and right wing Jeremy Colliton. In five games, Crosby has two goals and three assists. Crosby, who already has received high praise from Wayne Gretzky, is rooming with Tambellini. Interestingly, Tambellini's dad, former NHLer Steve Tambellini, roomed with Gretzky during the 1978 World Junior tournament in Montreal.

  • Sources tell ESPN.com that Minnesota forward Marian Gaborik has dumped his latest agent, Ron Salcer. Gaborik, who signed a three-year deal worth a guaranteed $9.45 million plus performance-based bonuses in November, had hired Salcer after splitting with agents Allan Walsh and David Schatia.

    E.J. Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send E.J. a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    E.J. Hradek

    Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
    E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.
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