For some hockey players, wearing the colors of their country in international competition will always be the purest form of self-identification. This was certainly the case for former Blackhawks defenseman Chris Chelios, newly inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, who answered “USA” when asked about the team that best represented his career. Of course, most aspire to even a fraction of his long and decorated career, but even at the prospect level, wearing the stars and stripes still holds the highest thrill.
“It’s an honor to play for your country against the best guys in the world,” said Tyler Motte, one of three prospects taken from the U.S. National Team Development Program by the Blackhawks during June 30th's NHL Draft. “It really [helps you] compete at the next level, knowing you’re going against another country’s best guys.”
Motte knows, because he has starred for the USNTDP over the last two years alongside third-round selection John Hayden and sixth-rounder Anthony Louis. Motte’s 26 goals and +24 plus/minus rating paced the U-18 team this season, while Louis ranked second with 28 assists and Hayden served as a team captain. Together, they won a gold medal at a U-17 tournament in Russia in 2012 and finished as silver medalists at this year’s U-18 World Championship in Sochi, where Motte led the team in scoring with seven points (5G, 2A) in seven games.
Silverware at the youth level doesn’t necessarily improve a player’s draft stock, but it doesn’t go unnoticed.
“It’s not an important factor for us going into the draft, but it’s recognizable,” said Blackhawks Director of Amateur Scouting Mark Kelley. “The U.S. is the only country that medaled in the men’s U-18, U-20 and World Championships this year, and on the women’s side. That’s a feather in their cap.”
While international tournaments cap off each season, the program itself begins at the U-17 level, which sees mostly USHL competition.
“My first year, playing in the USHL was the next step up from Triple-A hockey for me,” said Louis, a native of Winfield, Ill. “It was a big jump for me; guys are quicker and stronger.”
Once the physical and mental adjustments are made, the second year of the development program offers players both the strenuous schedule of major-junior hockey—featuring nearly 75 competitive games a year against USHL and Division I competition—and the conditioning and academic demands of an NCAA program. The advantages are noticeable.
“Moving on to the next level for a lot of guys on our team, it’ll maybe give us a half-step on freshmen coming into college next year,” Motte said.
Motte will remain in his home state and play for the University of Michigan this fall, while Louis attends Miami of Ohio and Hayden joins defending NCAA champion Yale. For them, the USNTDP served as a perfect stepping stone between youth hockey and college.
“I was playing at the Brunswick school in the prep league [in 2010-11] when I got invited to go to the 40-player camp, and it instantly became a goal of mine to make the team,” he said. “When I got the offer, it was a no-brainer, to be honest. The development, coaching and off-ice training there is bar-none.”
“I heard a lot of good things about it, the weight training and testing on-ice and everything,” Louis added. “It’s tough, leaving home [as a teenager], but it’s a sacrifice you have to make to make it to the next level.”
The rigorous development program draws the attention of NHL teams who are looking to fill their prospect pool with well-rounded, high-character players who can punch above their weight class.
“It’s a very structured environment, but it’s totally geared to develop them,” Kelley said. “Their schooling is shaped around their schedule, and when we see them at the end of the year at the U-18 Championship, that’s the only time of the year where they’re playing against their peers. For the rest of the year, whether it’s college or USHL, they’re the youngest team.”
The numbers tell a compelling story: Over the last 15 years, the USNTDP has produced 228 NHL draft picks, averaging over 15 prospects per year. In 2013, a total of 17 current or former development players were selected by 13 NHL teams. Chicago was responsible for four of those picks, which included first-round choice Ryan Hartman, who was a gold medalist with Team USA at the 2012 U-18 and 2013 World Junior Championships.
Motte and Louis put themselves on Chicago’s radar after attending a combine held a couple weeks before the draft in late June, while Hayden was observed and interviewed extensively during the Toronto combine. It was a happy twist of fate that brought the trio back together at Prospect Camp this week, and their familiarity with each other and with the Blackhawks’ expectations could make the long, tough path to pro hockey feel a little less lonely.
“[At the Chicago combine] I got to meet a lot of the coaches, who are all great guys, so it was a great experience coming out and being a part of that,” Louis said. “It would be tougher if I didn’t know anyone here; it’s just good to have buddies to talk to while meeting new people.”
“That was a great feeling, seeing those guys wearing the same sweater again,” Motte added. “Hopefully I’ll get another chance to play with them in the future.”