When Buffalo Sabres interim coach Ron Rolston meets his new players Thursday, he'll see a familiar face in forward Nathan Gerbe. And when he looks out at the ice from behind the bench at Air Canada Centre on Thursday night, he'll see another familiar face in Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel.
Those are just two of the numerous American players Rolston played a role in developing during his time as a coach with the United States National Team Development Program.
Rolston spent seven seasons as a coach with the USNTDP, alternating years with the program's Under-17 and Under-18 team.
"Ron has had a tremendous influence on the continued rise of American players through seven successful years at the NTDP," Jim Johannson, Assistant Executive Director of Hockey Operations at USA Hockey, said when Rolston left the program in July 2011 to coach the Sabres' American Hockey League team.
Rolston's first season with the USNTDP was 2004-05, and he capped it by guiding the U-18 team to a gold medal at the World Under-18 Championship. The three leading scorers on that team were Kessel, Gerbe and Florida Panthers forward Peter Mueller. In all six players from that U-18 team were picked in the first round of an NHL Draft -- forwards Kessel, Mueller and Jack Skille, and defensemen Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson and Mark Mitera.
Rolston worked the following season with the USNTDP U-17 team, and when that group graduated to the U-18 level, he went with them. Emerging from that group were nine players who went on to be first-round NHL picks, among them Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, Nashville Predators forward Colin Wilson and St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
"I'm a great believer in him as a coach," van Riemsdyk told the Buffalo News. "He made me the player I am today. … I know pretty much everyone who played for him loved playing for him."
The following season he inherited a new group of players, and after a season of grooming them with the U-17 team, he helped them emerge as a championship group at the U-18 level, taking home the gold medal at the 2009 World Under-18 Championship.
And it wasn't the only gold medal that group won. Just nine months later, seven members from Rolston's U-18 champions -- forwards Jerry D'Amigo, Jeremy Morin, Ryan Bourque and Jason Zucker; defensemen Cam Fowler and John Ramage; and goaltender Jack Campbell -- won the United States' second-ever gold medal at the 2010 World Junior Championship.
Rolston had one more golden run in him, leading the U.S. to another gold medal, at the 2011 World U-18s. And much like the previous group he led to U-18 gold, the 2011 group wasn't satisfied with winning only one medal. Just last month, 10 players from that U-18 championship team -- forwards J.T. Miller, Rocco Grimaldi, Tyler Biggs, Blake Pietila and Cole Bardreau; defensemen Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba, Connor Murphy and Jake McCabe; and goaltender John Gibson -- captured the gold medal at the 2013 World Junior Championship.
"The thing that has stood out most is what seems to be his ability to understand and motivate individual players and have them contribute to the team concept," David Gregory of NHL Central Scouting told NHL.com. "He is certainly a very hard worker and is continually developing his craft."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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