BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For Jim Johannson, timing truly is everything. And for USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations, now is the perfect time to bring together some of the top U.S.-born players for an elite game.
Thirty-eight American players eligible for the 2013 NHL Draft will hit the ice here at First Niagara Center on Saturday for the inaugural CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game.
"This game literally has been in the works for quite a few years," Johannson said. "… It's time for USA Hockey to celebrate our prospects, and celebrate our game across the country."
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Among the prospects taking part are six players who earned A rankings from NHL Central Scouting on its preliminary players-to-watch list. Topping that list is Portland Winterhawks defenseman Seth Jones, expected to be a top-two pick in June. Also taking part in the game are forwards J.T. Compher and Hudson Fasching of the U.S. National Team Development Program, and Luke Johnson of the Lincoln Stars; and defensemen Ian McCoshen (Waterloo Black Hawks) and Michael Downing (Dubuque Fighting Saints). Two other A-ranked players, forwards Adam Erne of the Quebec Remparts and Justin Bailey of the Kitchener Rangers, were invited but are unable to attend.
Johannson said the All-American Prospects Game is the next logical step in the evolution of USA Hockey as an elite development organization -- from the launch of the National Team Development Program in 1996, to having American-born players taken first in the NHL Draft, to winning multiple championships at elite tournaments including the World Under-18 Championship and the World Junior Championship.
"I think so," he said of this game being the next step. "But I'm also glad that we took the time we took to have this game, because I think we're more prepared and more ready for it now. It fits in with everything that we're building in USA Hockey. … It's worked out well that this event is now and was not done four or five years ago without as much World Junior success both on and off the ice. Meaning, a big huge event in Buffalo, a very successful one in Grand Forks (N.D., in 2005) when it was run there, and the identity that's grown up, the games on NHL Network, more and more hockey fans knowing who some of these young rising players are.
"And now secondly with the recent draft success … there's a history of, 'You know what, an American could be the No. 1 guy on the podium,' so that's exciting for us as well."
Picking Buffalo as host for the event was an easy decision. USA Hockey worked closely with Buffalo Sabres management two years ago in advance of the 2011 World Junior Championship. That USA Hockey so quickly is returning to the city speaks to how solid that relationship is.
"When we came here for World Juniors, we wanted three things," Johannson said. "We wanted it to be a great experience for the players, we wanted it to be a great experience for the fans, and we wanted it to be a great business relationship with the Buffalo Sabres and USA Hockey, and we hit a home run on all three counts."
Sabres president Ted Black said the organization was thrilled to be able to work again with USA Hockey.
"If you can distill it to one word, it's probably trust," Black said. "We really appreciate the trust the USA Hockey has placed with the Buffalo Sabres, this region, this market, to launch their inaugural event. This means a lot to us and we take that trust very seriously, and we've worked very, very hard to make this an event that they look back on and that they're very, very proud of and one that we hope isn't the last stop on this tour. We'd like to have this back and so we want [to serve as host again]. The best way to do that is to put on a first-class show. … We look forward to the event, we look forward to having the fans in here for some hockey, and we also look forward to watching these players that are at a very, very elite level, and hopefully they're donning the Sabres colors in the not-too-distant future -- at least a couple of them."
Black said he expects to see at least 5,000 people in the building for the game Saturday, but said ticket sales alone won't be the deciding factor on the success of the event.
"For us, we don't measure success by the number of tickets we sell," he said. "For us, it's on an even more micro level. We want the players that are coming here to have a first-rate experience and a first-rate impression of our franchise and of this city, and we also want to continue to impress USA Hockey, which we enjoy a wonderful relationship with."
Johannson said just the fact that the game finally has come to fruition makes the event a success. However, he added that the ultimate value of the event will come down to the quality of the play on the ice. Much like the Canadian Hockey League's annual top prospects game in January, this one will feature an all-star lineup of talent but will be anything like a traditional all-star game.
"When we drop the puck, the game is in the players' hands," Johannson said. "For us, the measurement will be that it is a good game and the level of play has an intensity level that is higher than fans see in what is quote/unquote an all-star game. This is not an all-star game; it's a prospect game to showcase their talent. Our emphasis is going to be … there are 150 NHL scouts coming to this game and they want to see some separation in talent and that's the part we'll emphasize to the players.
"When it's all said and done, and taking a look at the event, a measure of success for us will be how the game goes and the reaction from not only a great partner in the National Hockey League … and how the event worked from a hockey perspective for everyone involved."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK