On a night when the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame held its annual induction ceremony and dinner in Buffalo, a pair of guests instrumental to American hockey, past, present and future made for a memorable NHL Hour with Commissioner Gary Bettman.
USA Hockey's executive director Dave Ogrean and goaltender Jim Craig from the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" team joined Bettman for the broadcast live from HSBC Arena, where the celebration was taking place.
After explaining how USA Hockey manages everything from youth hockey all the way up to selecting the general manager and personnel for the Olympic team, Ogrean addressed the development of young players and specifically how the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., came about.
"We were dissatisfied with our performance especially in international tournaments and we said, 'We have to do something different,'" Ogrean said. "We took a look at various models and the one that we ultimately adopted was one that was pretty radical for us and we implemented it quite quickly, which is radical for an organization of our size.
"But what we do each year is take 46 kids under 17 and under 18 -- when you go in as an under-17 you are ostensibly there for two years, your last two years of high school -- and they move to Ann Arbor, Mich. They are billeted with local families if their parents don't decide to relocate … they receive high-intensity training, they're on the ice six or seven a days a week, they play a very intense schedule against generally older competition in the United States Hockey League and several international tournaments, probably a 65-to-75 game schedule. Very, very high-level professional coaching and training for these athletes."
The academic standards are rigorous as well -- over the course of the past 12 years Ogrean said the program boasts a cumulative grade-point average of 3.3 -- and USA Hockey is proud that the vast majority of USNTDP players receive the opportunity to go to an NCAA institution on a full scholarship or to play major junior hockey prior to being drafted.
While USA Hockey begins its select camps at the age of 14, Ogrean admitted it's impossible to pick up every exceptional player on their radar.
"We don't bat 1.000 -- there are kids that you miss. Patrick Kane
is a great example," he said, pointing to the young star who scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal for the Blackhawks last spring. "He was not invited to Ann Arbor as a 16-year-old. His development was so significant in the next year that he came in only for the last year, and advanced so much in that year he then went up to the CHL for one year before being a high draft choice. He was a little bit of a late-bloomer compared to a lot of kids that are 13, 14, 15 years old."
Craig spent 25 years in advertising after his playing career ended; he now runs his own business, which includes motivational speaking and has a business book entitled Gold Medal Strategies coming out in April. Bettman asked him how long it took for Craig and the other players on the 1980 U.S. team to realize exactly what they had accomplished.
"I think what we were all doing, we were pioneers as American hockey players, trying to get it so more Americans could get in the League," Craig said. "I think we were so focused on trying to fit in and be part of that NHL and part of that experience that we were all smart enough to know that we had so much more work to do to be great players in the NHL.
"I don't think we ever lived off that. I think the nicest part about our victory is it was for our country. We just felt like we were vehicles. There were so many men and women that served in our armed services that do so much more that nobody gets credit for. But we make people happy and so I think we just moved on."
Craig recalled the impact the coach of that team, Herb Brooks, had on his life as well as Dr. V. George Nagobads, one of those being inducted into the Hall of Fame in Thursday's festivities.
"We don't bat 1.000 -- there are kids that you miss. Patrick Kane is a great example. He was not invited to Ann Arbor as a 16-year-old. His development was so significant in the next year that he came in only for the last year, and advanced so much in that year he then went up to the CHL for one year before being a high draft choice." -- Ed Ogrean
"Herb was able to pull greatness out of all his players and treat them as individuals and yet have a total team buy-in," Craig said. "Herb, to me, was like a father figure. I had just lost my mother at the time -- and tonight, Dr. Nagobads is going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame -- I lived with Dr. Nagobads, and it was like a great father figure. Herb cared about his players. He was a very rare, special guy who had the vision of things well before most."
October is Hockey Fights Cancer month, and Craig has had several reminders in his life about the terrible toll the disease can take. That includes just this past week, when his nephew Craig Sherron died at the age of 42 following a battle with stomach cancer. Sherron was a standout hockey player at the collegiate level who enjoyed a nearly two-decade AHL career.
Some of the proceeds from Thursday's event will go to Sherron's wife and four children. Jim Craig developed a special relationship with his nephew after his sister also died of cancer.
"I was playing with the Minnesota North Stars and it was time to go to camp. I walked down the street to see my sister and she whispered in my ear that she was going to die of cancer. And she told me to take care of Craig. And so Craig has been much more to me than a nephew, he's been more like a son," he said.
"Sometimes you don't know why God does stuff like this, but you just hope that as players and as talented leagues that we can help raise money to help people and I think this is a great step."