The U.S. National Under-18 Team opens the 2013-14 season this weekend with a pair of games at the United States Hockey League Fall Classic East in Indianapolis.
Team USA will face the Chicago Steel on Friday before meeting Youngstown on Saturday.
“The big thing is we are getting back into hockey shape and battling to make sure that we understand the level we have to compete at,” said head coach Danton Cole, whose squad reported to Ann Arbor, Mich., on Aug. 26. “It’s not summer hockey anymore, and as hard as you try to approximate it, you can’t.
“We did not have a ton of changes from last year, but we are trying to cement the things we did last year so we get them fairly good. The things we are tweaking in practice, we keep going over to make sure everyone gets it. This weekend will be a good test for us as we will find out more about our team.”
Nineteen players from the 1996 birth year return for their second season with the NTDP, including defensemen Louie Belpedio (Skokie, Ill.), Nathan Billitier (Spencerport, N.Y.), Ryan Bliss (Chelmsford, Mass.), Ryan Collins (Bloomington, Minn.), Brandon Fortunato (North Hills, N.Y.), Jack Glover (Golden Valley, Minn.) and Johnathan MacLeod (Dracut, Mass.); forwards Anders Bjork (Mequon, Wis.), Jack Eichel (North Chelmsford, Mass.), Jared Fiegl (Parker, Colo.), Ryan Hitchcock (Manhasset, N.Y.), Dylan Larkin (Waterford, Mich.), Sonny Milano (Massapequa, N.Y.), Dylan Pavelek (Marysville, Mich.), Nolan Stevens (Manhattan Beach, Calif.), Alex Tuch (Baldwinsville, N.Y.) and Joe Wegwerth (Brewtser, N.Y.); and goaltenders Edwin Minney (Wind Gap, Pa.) and Blake Weyrick (Ojai, Calif.).
“It’s nice having both Minney and Weyrick in net and healthy; that is a change from last year,” said Cole, who guided the then-U17 squad to a 16-36-4 (W-L-OTL) record last year. “It’s refreshing to have Pavelek and Wegwerth back in the line up too."
Three new faces join the U18 squad in defenseman Jack Dougherty (Cottage Grove, Minn.) and forwards Shane Gersich (Chaska, Minn.) and Ryan Wagner (Park Ridge, Ill.). All three have previous experience with Team USA. Both Dougherty and Wagner skated with the U.S. Under-18 Select Team at the 2013 Memorial of Ivan Hlinka Tournament in August in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Meanwhile, Gersich earned a title with the 2012 U.S. Under-17 Select Team at the Five Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic.
“The new guys have a lot to learn and go through, but they have been good additions,” Cole said. “They bring a positive attitude and energy to the room.”
The U18 squad comes into the season after an up-and-down U17 season last year. But Cole said a 3-2 shootout win at Cedar Rapids at the end of last season ended things on a high note.
“I have to give the players credit; they worked through a lot of adversity, injuries and tough situations last year,” he said. “That [Cedar Rapids win] really led us into spring and is where things really started to come together with this group. They had a great spring and did a real nice job over the summer, coming back with their fitness and energy levels. They have practiced hard and picked up where we left off.”
The team’s 45-game schedule features competition against the USHL and NCAA Division I and III schools, in addition to three international tournaments. Following the USHL Fall Classic East, Team USA opens the regular season on Sept. 20 against the Youngstown Phantoms at home at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. The squad’s first collegiate game will come at Northern Michigan University on Oct. 5. The U18s later head to the Four Nations Tournament in Finland from Nov. 6-10 and the Five Nations Tournament in Russia from Feb. 5-10, 2014. The season concludes with the 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation Men’s Under-18 World Championship in Lappeenranta, Finland, from April 10-27.
“It’s definitely a process,” Cole said. “It’s good for the guys to go through. You do it against good competition.”
Cole enters his fourth year as a head coach with the National Team Development Program and his second go-around with the U18 program. In 2012, his squad captured the gold medal at the IIHF Men's Under-18 World Championships in Brno, Czech Republic, posting a perfect 6-0-0-0 (W-OTW-OTL-L) record.
“Every group is a little different. If you can eliminate some distractions and help the guys through it, a lot of things are easier the second year,” Cole said. “Some other distractions are mental things: the draft, the draft rankings and finalizing college plans; they can get a little bit ahead of themselves. That is one of the bigger pitfalls that we watch."
“We try to keep working with them day-to-day and let those things take care of themselves.”
Cole is joined on his staff for a third straight season by John Gruden, a former All-America defenseman and pro player. In addition, there are two new faces with first-year intern coach Daniel Naurato and goaltending coach Kevin Reiter.
“John has been through the U18 year and has been through the first year as well,” Cole said. “He brings knowledge and takes on more and more responsibility, which is good. I think he has a good rapport with the defenseman, and when they need to be pushed by somebody other than me, it’s nice that he can do that. He has done a great job and is real valuable around here.”
“Daniel has done a great job,” added Cole. “He comes in with a little more experience than some of the intern coaches. He was the volunteer assistant coach at the University of Connecticut last year. He has a lot of ideas and works extremely hard. He will get in there to do the dirty work and understands the process he needs to go through."
“Kevin, with the goalies, has jumped in and done the job. It’s difficult, especially with the responsibilities he has with his job and the Strelow Program. He has energy and is a good asset for us.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
• Tickets for home games played at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube are $7 for adults and $5 for children, seniors and active military members. Youth hockey players wearing their team jerseys are admitted for just $1 and group rates are available. Tickets can be purchased by calling the NTDP at (734) 327-9251.
• Of the 16 games against college opponents, 12 are against NCAA Division I schools, including three that finished the 2012-13 season ranked in the top 15 of the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Men’s College Hockey Poll. They are No. 4 St. Cloud State University, No. 5 Miami University, and No. 7 University of North Dakota.
• The 22 players on the U.S. roster represent nine different states. New York leads the way with six natives on the roster, while Minnesota has four and Massachusetts has three.
• Jack Eichel and Blake Weyrick were a part of the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team that earned the silver medal at the 2013 IIHF Men's Under-18 World Championship held in Sochi, Russia.
• A total of 19 members of Team USA have verbally committed to NCAA Division I schools.
• The NTDP includes both the U17 and U18 squads. Teams will count jointly as one team in the USHL standings as a member of the Eastern Conference. Should the NTDP qualify for the Clark Cup playoffs, the U.S. National Under-17 Team will represent Team USA.