Today, the United States National Team Development Program is considered a top model for developing future NHL stars.
"It was trying to build some loyalty to USA Hockey, some passion in playing for the country, which I think was there but I don't think there was a depth to it that's developed from the program and that's what they were looking for," NTDP Director of Operations Scott Monaghan, who has been with the program since the beginning, told NHL.com.
Three NTDP alums have been taken with the first pick of an NHL Entry Draft -- Patrick Kane (Chicago, 2007), Erik Johnson (St. Louis, 2006) and Rick DiPietro (N.Y. Islanders, 2000). In all, 38 players have been taken in the first round -- including five in 2010 -- and 181 players in all have been drafted.
The NTDP consists of two teams, an under-17 squad and an under-18 team, both of which are housed in Ann Arbor, Mich. Players live with billet families in the area and attend a local high school. They skate at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, a facility that contains three ice sheets, locker rooms, offices, a training area and a weight room.
The teams play a schedule that includes games against Canadian and U.S. colleges, as well as United States Hockey League teams. There's also a robust international schedule. It's success at those tournaments that best measures the program's success.
And there likely was no better time in the NTDP's history than the 2009-10 hockey season -- in particular, a four-month stretch from January to April in 2010 that saw the U.S. clean up on the hardware.
It started in January with a gold medal at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, and continued a few days later with a memorable overtime win against Canada for World Junior Championship gold in Saskatoon. That team featured two players taken right off the NTDP team -- goaltender Jack Campbell and forward Jason Zucker -- as well as nine other program graduates.
In February, the men's Olympic team made the gold-medal game for only the second time since 1980, scoring late to memorably push the game to overtime before falling one goal short. That team featured seven NTDP alums -- defensemen Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Ryan Suter and Ryan Whitney, and forwards Kane, Ryan Kesler and Phil Kessel.
And then in April, Campbell backstopped the U.S. to its third straight World Under-18 Championship gold.
All that success, however, didn't come easy. It was a hard road for Jackson, who spent a year scouting players for the initial NTDP class, while at the same time defending every aspect of his program.
"There were plenty of people that had doubts, even within the organization," Jackson, now the coach at Notre Dame, told NHL.com. "It was just getting the support. Early on we were the targets for pressure. I still have scars on my back ... pulling kids away from their local teams and putting them in this environment. It was criticized quite heavily, even by people in the organization. Those early years were difficult.
"We had to stand our ground and prove that what we were doing was in the best interest of the kids' development. Even through the first five years it was a major challenge. ... We were taking hits from high school hockey, prep school hockey, junior hockey. We kept that away from the kids, but it was challenging."
Jackson was building the road as he drove along it.
"We looked at the international way of doing things, the Canadian way of doing things, and really none of them fit exactly because our development model was spread out among a number of different entities," Jackson said. "One problem was some kids were playing too many games and not practicing enough, and others weren't playing enough game and practicing too much. It was finding the middle ground and putting them in an environment to develop them physically, develop them emotionally and make sure we didn't lose anything academically.
"There wasn't really any model to follow. It was, how are we going to do something different that impacts them in a major way, rather than have a four-week camp in the summer, or doing camps during the season and taking players away from their club teams. We decided the best way to do it was put together a year-round program that was going to be run very similar to a college program. They're training four days a week and going to school, and playing a tougher schedule then they were accustomed to."
"It's a special program. I know it's skeptical to some people around the country why they put that much money into a small amount of players, but it's hard for me to bad-mouth it when it did such great things for me and my career."The first tournament the program won was the 1999 Five Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic, but for Jackson, the tipping point came at the 2000 World Junior Championship in Sweden. A team that featured DiPietro, Jordan Leopold, Ron Hainsey and Jeff Taffe beat a Sweden team led by the Sedin twins to advance to the bronze-medal game, where it lost by one goal to a Canada team featuring Brad Richards, Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Jay Bouwmeester.
-- Matt Carle
-- Matt Carle
"It was my last year there that we actually took a team that was composed of kids that went through the program for two years and were in their freshmen and sophomore years of college," Jackson said. "That was the first time we felt like we had a legitimate chance to win the gold medal."
Monaghan said the next big moment came at the 2002 World Under-18 Championship. Mike Eaves had replaced Jackson, and guided a team led up front by Kesler, David Booth and Patrick Eaves, defensively by Suter and Matt Carle, and in goal by Jimmy Howard. Facing a Russia team in the gold-medal game that featured Alexander Semin, Nikolay Zherdev and a 16-year-old Alex Ovechkin, the U.S. skated away with a 3-1 victory.
"That win against the Russians was planting the flag and saying let's go," Monaghan said.
"The 1984 birth year was a pretty strong group," Carle said. "(Zach) Parise wasn't on our team but he would come and play in the tournaments with us. We had a strong group of guys and we were pretty close."
That closeness was forged through being together as a team in Ann Arbor.
"Looking back on my youth hockey days, that was kind of a turning point for me," Carle said of leaving his home in Alaska for the NTDP. "I remember that summer I had gone to the select tournament and kind of got passed up by the team ... but something happened to a player on the NTDP, he went to the OHL or major junior or something, and I was selected to play with the team, so it was a blessing for me. It really catapulted my career and helped me develop more into a hockey player."
Carle, who played in the program from 2000-02 and went on to be a 2003 second-round Entry Draft pick, has forged a solid NHL career in stops with San Jose, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.
"It's a special program," he said. "I know it's skeptical to some people around the country why they put that much money into a small amount of players, but it's hard for me to bad-mouth it when it did such great things for me and my career."
Carle isn't alone in his feelings.
"It's a great program and I'm glad I went through it," said Colorado Avalanche forward Kevin Porter, who was in the program from 2002-04 and won a silver medal at the '04 World U-18s. "You play with some of the best players in the country in your age group. You make a lot of friends. I was 16 and that was the age I started to work out and lift weights. I hadn't worked out before that. They teach you the proper lifting techniques. You lift three or four times a week, which is good. You build body muscle and strength."
Playing high-level international tournaments at a young age also made players battle-tested prior to reaching the NHL.
"The great thing you get out of it is you play in a lot of big-situation games, high-pressure games, and that really prepares you for college and even World Juniors and the like down the road," said Avalanche rookie defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was with the program from 2005-07, won a silver medal at 2007 World U-18s and played in the 2009 World Junior Championship. "You’re playing with all the best kids at your age in the country and every day in practice is a development day for you because you’re pushing against the best players. It really was a great learning experience for me."
The NTDP now not only is a destination for players, it's become the model other nations are looking at.
"We have the Europeans coming over to look at what we do, we have people asking us about how we do what we do and why we do it," Monaghan said. "That's because this is a very unique model and has been since the beginning. It was controversial at first, but it's proven itself over time."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org