Story by Brendan McNicholas
A record 10 U.S.-born players were selected in the first round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, something Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles hopes is a sign of great things to come for American hockey.
"It's exciting," said Liles, who competed for the United States at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy. "Anytime you get guys drafted as much as we've had in the past few years, I think it really is great. You are now starting to see how much USA Hockey has developed its players over the past few years."
The future of American hockey looks bright, indeed, as four of the top 10 picks this past June were born in the United States, including the No. 1 overall selection, defenseman Erik Johnson. And this comes after eight U.S. born players were taken in the first round of the 2005 Entry Draft.
Much of this can be attributed to the success of the U.S. National Team Development Program. Based out of Ann Arbor, Mich., the NTDP is beginning its 10th season in 2006-07. This year-round program prepares elite U.S. born players under the age of 18 for successful hockey careers.
The Avalanche selected three players out of the U.S. National Team Development Program this year: defenseman Nigel Williams (second round), center Michael Carman (third round) and defenseman Kevin Montgomery (fourth round). All three players will continue their development at major college programs this winter.
"It's still a young program but we're now seeing the results across the board," said Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's Senior Director of Hockey Operations. "We're very excited in the sense that our guys are ready to play at a younger age. We used to see the 23 or 24 year olds entering the league but now it's the 21 or 22 year-olds who are ready to play."
Liles was a graduate of the NTDP, and so was defenseman Jordan Leopold, whom the Avalanche acquired this past summer. Both players skated with the inaugural development program in 1997-98 and have since gone on to represent the United States at the 2005 World Championships and 2006 Olympics.
"I'm really looking forward to playing with (Liles) again," said Leopold, who spent the past three seasons with the Calgary Flames. "We've been able to represent our country at the Olympics and world championships and there's nothing like playing for your nation."
"We were (defense) partners in the Olympics for a while and Jordan is a tremendous player," said Liles. "We're excited to have him as a part of the Avalanche blueline."
Both Liles and Leopold are products of American college hockey as well. Leopold captured the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as college hockey's most outstanding player as a senior at the University of Minnesota in 2001-02. Liles was a Hobey Baker finalist one year later as a senior at Michigan State in 2002-03.
"Our incoming freshmen used to be third or fourth line guys their first year," said Johannson. "Now we go out scouting and our freshmen are on the top two lines, playing on the No. 1 power play, logging a ton of ice time. That's the difference. The NTDP has really accelerated the curve."
"It's a great experience," he said of the NTDP. "I went in with eyes wide open and didn't know what to expect but it certainly prepared me for college and the next level."
In addition to Liles and Leopold, Colorado's roster also features U.S. National Team veteran Ken Klee, who played for Team USA at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
The Avalanche also has several players in its system with national team experience. T.J. Hensick, who plays for the University of Michigan, and Tom Fritsche, who skates for Ohio State, both came up through the NTDP and went on to represent the United States at the world juniors. Ryan Stoa, Colorado's top pick in the 2005 Entry Draft, is also a product of the NTDP.
"USA Hockey continues to develop elite players," said Avalanche Assistant Coach Tony Granato, who competed for the U.S. National Team at the 1988 Olympics. "The Americans have a great core of 18 to 24 year-old players, probably the best we've ever had."
Despite being eliminated by Finland in the quarterfinals of the 2006 Winter Games, USA Hockey believes its next generation of hockey players may be as good as any in the world. They are already well on their way, as the United States won its first-ever gold medal at the World Junior Championships in 2004 and also claimed gold at the 2005 and 2006 World Under-18 Championships.
"We certainly respect our competition but we feel very positive about our future," said Johannson. "The NTDP is starting to produce results, creating not only more depth then we have ever had but hopefully some of the top-level players that can be a part of our national team for a long time."