When Kurt Kleinendorst
donned the red, white and blue at the 1981 World Championships, developmental hockey for budding amateurs in the United States was just an afterthought.
For starters, it wasn't until 1996 that USA Hockey launched the National Team Development Program -- an initiative designed to prepare players under the age of 18 for participation on U.S. national teams.
As the recently appointed coach for the NTDP's under-18 squad, Kleinendorst can appreciate the amount of time and effort that goes into shaping budding performers into world-class athletes. Heck, it worked for Rick DiPietro
, David Booth
, Erik Johnson
, Ryan Kesler
, Mike Komisarek
and Patrick Kane
, among others.
"We don't want to just develop hockey players, but develop people," Kleinendorst told NHL.com. "When they graduate from this program, they'll have a greater knowledge of what accountability is all about and how they'll need to conduct themselves on and off the ice. After all, this group will be watched closely."
So will Kleinendorst, who is entering a new chapter of his coaching career. He spent the past three seasons as coach of the Lowell Devils, the New Jersey Devils
' American Hockey League affiliate, before replacing John Hynes
at the NTDP, which is headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich. Hynes announced his resignation in August to become an assistant coach for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the AHL.
Prior to coaching in Lowell, Kleinendorst was a member of New Jersey's scouting staff for five seasons -- four as a special assistant scout (2002-06) and one as a professional scout (2001-02). He was an assistant coach in New Jersey in 2000-01.
"It's a little bit of a different experience," Kleinendorst said of the NTDP. "I'm used to coaching at the pro league and now I'm dealing with 17-year-old kids, billet families and high school families. But as far as an opportunity, this is great because it's neat, fresh and completely new to me. But at the end of the day, it's hockey. The biggest difference is motivation doesn't always work on the pro athletes, but these kids are like sponges, so the last thing I need to worry about is motivating them."
He's been extremely impressed with the players at his disposal and is looking forward to starting the season, which includes a 26-game USHL slate against teams competing in the nation's only Tier I Junior A hockey league. The team also has 17 NCAA opponents on tap, including the last four Division I national champions -- Boston University (Oct. 10), Boston College (Oct. 9), Michigan State (Jan. 4) and the University of Wisconsin (Jan. 9).
Kleinendorst is very much looking forward to the USHL Fall Classic in Sioux City, Iowa, which begins Thursday. His NTDP Under-18 Team will play three exhibition games there in front of an expected 200 NHL and college scouts.
"We're in our early days, and I'm a new coach to these kids," Kleinendorst said. "Coach Hynes is a very good coach and he and the players had a bond here, but I'm the new guy and I'm sure there are things that are similar and things they'll have to adjust. The Fall Classic will give us an opportunity to get to know each other, come together and put everything we've done in practice to the test. This is the beginning of a long process. I'm looking forward to it."
The 22-player NTDP roster includes five players who helped the U.S. Under-18 team win gold at the 2009 World Under-18 Championship in Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn. That group includes goalie Jack Campbell
, defensemen Adam Clendening and Jon Merrill and forwards Matthew Nieto and Jason Zucker
Kleinendorst admits there isn't one particular player who stands out for him as he's been equally impressed with everyone.
"This is a talented group, and we're going to have a lot of fun," he said. "The one thing that jumped out to me was their skill level. They all have size and play the game the way you would want a player to compete. They're all smart, and when you take them away from the rink they handle themselves the way they should."
Still, nothing will be handed to Kleinendorst's club, especially against many of the top junior and collegiate programs in the country.
"It's no easy task, and throw on top of that the fact everything is geared toward World (U-18) Championships (April 13-23, 2010), it's a lot to think about," Kleinendorst said. "But the boys are working and hitting the weight room hard. We've got a long way to go and it all starts in Sioux City."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.