Youthful roots aid U.S. hockey

Posted Feb. 24, 2010, at 12:03 a.m.

In 1980, the Miracle on Ice changed the way hockey was viewed in this country.

The fact a bunch of college kids were able to shock the mighty Russians en route to the gold medal in Lake Placid captivated an entire nation.

Coach Herb Brooks, who died in a 2003 car accident, was immortalized, as were players like Mike Eruzione and goalie Jim Craig.

Thirty years later, the sport has changed dramatically.

The National Hockey League now shuts down to allow its players to compete in the Olympics and that has created a wonderful showcase of talent.

Hopefully, that will never change.

Thirteen years ago, the United States National Team Development Program was established in Ann Arbor, Mich., and it has played a major role in the hockey growth in this country.

It was designed to take the best 16- to 19-year-old players in the United States and bring them together in one location and let them develop under the auspices of a top-notch coaching staff. They would play a demanding 50-plus-game schedule including prestigious tournaments around the world.

Jeff Jackson, former Lake Superior State coach and current Notre Dame coach, was the program architect and former University of Maine assistant and interim head coach Greg Cronin, currently the head coach at Northeastern, was one of his coaches.

“What USA Hockey wanted to do was centralize the Under-20 [year-old] players and create a culture that was identifiable for young kids,” explained Cronin.

He said Jackson deserves “all the credit” for being the mastermind behind it.

The players lived with host families and attended one of two high schools in Ann Arbor.

The Under-18 team spent one season playing in a Major Junior league in Canada before being jettisoned from the league.

After that first year, the Under-18 team has played college teams as well as various junior teams while the Under-17s play primarily junior teams. Both also play in tournaments around the world.

The program has helped transform the United States into a consistent contender in such tournaments as the World Under-17 Challenge and the World Junior Championships.

U.S. teams are the reigning champs in both and the Olympic team is currently 3-0 heading into today’s quarterfinal against Switzerland. The U.S. is coming off its monumental 5-3 victory over Canada.

The players have an extensive off-ice training program. Facilities include a boxing ring.

“Boxing bred mental toughness,” explained Cronin.

One of the most important developments, according to Cronin, was it “created a sense of pride and an organization youngsters could strive to play for.”

There have been other developments that have helped create more hockey awareness in this country.

Teams in nonhockey areas won the Stanley Cup, namely Anaheim, Tampa Bay and Carolina (North Carolina).

More rinks were built in those states.

Massachusetts has always been a hockey hotbed, but there are no Massachusetts natives on this year’s Olympic team.

That shows the geographic diversity in talent.

Cronin said the National Team Development Program has also created a healthy camaraderie and familiarity among the players and coaches.

There are several NTDP players on the U.S. Olympic team and there will be plenty more in the future.

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