Success mollifies program critics
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.
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