Please note: This story was originally written for NHL.com and appeared on May 17, 2006.
By Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Senior Writer
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the United States National Team Developmental Program has exceeded all expectations as it approaches its 10th birthday.
Started by USA Hockey in 1996, the revolutionary full-time developmental program was initially designed to primarily be a feeder system for the country's various national teams, particularly the World Junior Championship team.
In that limited definition, the program has been a resounding success.
The U-20 team won the gold medal at the World Junior Championships two years ago, the first-ever gold for the Americans at that prestigious competition. The U-18 team, meanwhile, has won back-to-back world titles, completing the double at last month's tournament in Sweden.
Additionally, three NTDP alumni -- defensemen John-Michael Liles and Jordan Leopold and goalie Rick DiPietro -- represented the United States at the 2006 Olympics in Torino.
"We're beginning to see our success at the international level being addressed," said Scott Monaghan, an original member of the NTDP program's management team who now holds the title of NTDP Director of Operations. "You saw it at this year's Olympics, with three players from the program on that team.
"I think you will see more and more of that. These guys feel a loyalty to the program and want to play for the United States. You will see that again at the World Championships and in other international competitions going forward."
But, the NTDP's success has far outstripped its initially limited goal of stocking USA Hockey's various national teams. Today, the program is a sure-fire pipeline into the NHL Entry Draft, churning out an ever-growing wave of top-flight prospects on an annual basis.
In the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, 61 American players were selected, 15 of whom were products of the NTDP, including top-10 selections Jack Johnson (third overall/Carolina Hurricanes) and Jack Skille (seventh overall/Chicago Blackhawks).
This year, 11 draft-eligible NTDP players are ranked among the top-100 North American skaters by the Central Scouting Service, a clearinghouse of prospect rankings run by the NHL.
Defenseman Erik Johnson heads that list as the top overall rated North American prospect. NTDP goalie Joe Palmer is the fourth-rated North American goalie on the CSS's final rankings list.
According to Jeff Jackson, the program's first coach back in 1996, and now the head coach at the University of Notre Dame, the program's growth into another feeder system for the NHL was not an accident.
Rather, once professionals were allowed to play in the Olympics in 1998, Jackson's staff realized that it had to develop NHL-caliber players if it hoped to fulfill the program's mandate of stocking the national teams, which would be dominated by NHL-proven players going forward.
"Our goal, right then, became to develop players that would be elite-level players in the NHL," said Jackson, who left the program in 2000. "We decided that we were going to go after kids, because of their skills, that would have the opportunity to go to the NHL."
Already, 27 NTDP alums have played at least one regular-season game in the NHL.
E.J. Maguire, the head scout with the Central Scouting Service, makes his living evaluating teen-age hockey players and judging their worthiness to move on to the professional ranks. He is familiar with every developmental setup available to those kids, be it college, Junior hockey, high school or prep school. He has nothing but praise for what the NTDP program has done in such a short time period.
"I applaud the program," said Maguire, whose staff scouts the NTDP players heavily in competition against American college programs and international hockey tournaments. "I think it is a significant factor in the development of USA Hockey talent. The concept, which relies heavily on hockey development models from Europe, now is bearing the fruits of the deep thinking of the original planners."
Jackson and Bob Mancini, far ahead of their time with their visions as the primary architects of the program, foresaw a program that would collect, in one place, the best teenage hockey talent on offer across the United States and introduce them to a rigorous training regimen and demanding schedule of competition stretched across nine months that would significantly accelerate their growth as players, both on and off the ice.
Considered a pie-in-the-sky idea by many because it was so far beyond anything attempted on American soil, the program was met by heavy resistance on many fronts. Already established developmental programs did not like the idea of losing players to this unproven upstart. Other critics believed the program was far too exclusive and expensive; targeted at developing 50 top-tier prospects while leaving other players behind to find their own way with far less support from USA Hockey.
"We took a lot of hits in the beginning," said Jackson. "There was a lot of fighting, a lot of resistance and a lot of obstacles to overcome."
But, overcome is exactly what the staff and the original group of players did, blazing a trail that has led to unexpected success. It wasn't always easy, but everyone involved was committed to the vision of an elite developmental program for USA Hockey.
"We went through a lot of stuff," said Monaghan, who was responsible for much of the logistical planning required of such a large undertaking that did not have a previous blueprint to follow. "I mean, we had a lot of challenges in things that had to be worked through. I think we had the right concepts and ideas, but there is no question when you are doing something completely new, there are going be things that come up where you are going to say, 'Wow, I didn't think about that.'"
Difficulties in finding billet homes, getting the players enrolled in schools, finding suitable opposition to compete against, developing and maintaining a comprehensive schedule and making travel arrangements were among the obstacles the NTDP staff had to initially overcome.
Freddy Meyer, now an established defenseman with the Philadelphia Flyers, was among the first group of players to live the NTDP vision back in 1997.
Those original players are proud of their roles as trailblazers -- often referred to as the "pioneers" by members of today's NTDP staff -- and have fond memories of their part in making NTDP a reality.
"I was part of the first class of the NTDP," said Meyer, who attended Boston University after his run in the NTDP program. "I guess we were kind of the rats, or the samples, to see if it was going to work and what kind of success it was going to have. The first 50 of us kind of took a risk. It was the first year of the program and it looked like a great program, but nobody was really sure how successful it was going to be."