It's no secret that youth hockey in the United States has made great strides the past few decades.
Players from more geographical locations continue to appear on the rosters of major junior teams in Canada, as well as USHL and NAHL clubs in the U.S. The National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, MI and the squads at the northeastern private schools and NCAA college teams also have more American players than ever.
The 2014 NHL Draft that took place in Philadelphia, PA this past weekend served as a reunion of sorts for two of the strong midget programs that are contributing to that growth — the Illinois-based Chicago Mission U16 club from the 2010-11 season and the Belle Tire midget major squad of 2011-12.
While much of the attention has been on the four first round picks — William Nylander and Nick Schmaltz who skated for Chicago Mission, and Belle Tire's Brendan Perlini and Dylan Larkin — there was a total of nine players that played for one of those two programs that were chosen at this weekend's NHL Draft.
What's equally interesting is the varied routes that each of those players have taken — both in getting to the Mission and Belle Tire squads in the first place and then in progressing to the point where they are now NHL draftees.
"We've kind of been speaking a little bit. It's kind of cool to go through this process with those guys," said Perlini, the newly-drafted Arizona Coyotes prospect who skated for Belle Tire. "I think it was obviously a really good team."
Perlini's hockey journey began in Great Britain, where he started skating while his father, Fred Perlini, was playing and then coaching in the United Kingdom.
Perlini played bantam hockey for the Soo Greyhounds after moving back to Sault Ste. Marie, ON. Originally planning to play college hockey, he spent one year with the Belle Tire bantam major team and the next season with the U16 squad before heading to Barrie in the OHL.
"Ultimately I think taking the OHL was my path," said Perlini, who was chosen 12th overall by the Coyotes. "My brother played college. I watched a lot of college. I watched OHL, too. Ultimately I thought that it just better suited my game. I saw myself having a pro career from the OHL and developing a little better and that's ultimately how I made the decision."
After beginning the 2012-13 season seeing limited ice time with the Barrie Colts, Perlini was traded to the Niagara IceDogs where he joined former Belle Tire teammate, defenseman Aaron Haydon.
A native of Plymouth, MI, Haydon was selected by the IceDogs in the first round (20th overall) of the 2012 OHL Priority Selection and skated for the USA's U18 team at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament this past season. Haydon was chosen in the sixth round, 154th overall, of the 2014 NHL Draft by the Dallas Stars.
Goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, like Perlini and Haydon, chose the OHL path. The Parma, OH native had an outstanding 2013-14 season in his second year with the Plymouth Whalers, and was the starter for the USA team that won gold at the 2014 U18 World Championship. Nedeljkovic was chosen in the second round, 37th overall, of this weekend's draft by the Carolina Hurricanes.
Dylan Larkin had 42 points in 27 games for Belle Tire in 2011-12 before suffering a season-ending injury. He chose to join the U.S. NTDP program the following season, skating with the program for the next two seasons while committing to the University of Michigan. The Detroit Red Wings kept Larkin local, choosing the big center 15th overall in the first round of the NHL Draft.
Huge defensemen Ryan Mantha continues to make progress. He won a USHL Clark Cup championship with the Indiana Ice after being acquired from Sioux City in a mid-season trade. With Indiana going dormant for the 2014-15 season, Mantha will likely skate for the Muskegon Lumberjacks in the fall before joining the University of North Dakota in 2015-16, though the Niagara IceDogs obtained his OHL rights in a June trade with Sault Ste. Marie. He is the nephew of former NHL defenseman Moe Mantha. Ryan Mantha was chosen by the New York Rangers in the fourth round, 104th overall, of this year's draft.
The accomplishments of the former Chicago Mission players are no less impressive than their Belle Tire counterparts, and their career paths have been even more diverse.
Nylander, the son of former NHL forward Michael Nylander, played throughout North America while his father was playing pro hockey — playing for the Team Maryland junior team as a 14-year-old when his father was with the Washington Capitals — and finished the 2013-14 season with Sodertalje in Sweden's second league while also playing for the Sweden's entry at the 2014 U18 World Championship. Nylander was drafted in the first round, eighth overall, on Friday night by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"It's been great (seeing the guys from Mission at the draft)," said Nylander. "Especially since I built a close bond with Nick Schmaltz. We would hang a lot together when we were playing together and I was just at his house for a couple of days so it's fun seeing them here – (Christian) Dvorak and Schmaltz…It's been a fun year."
Schmaltz has been playing for the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL for the past two seasons and is committed to joining the University of North Dakota where his older brother, Jordan Schmaltz (STL), a defenseman, just completed his sophomore season. Nick Schmaltz was the leading scorer for the USA's U18 team at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and won a gold medal for Team USA at the World Junior A Challenge. Although Schmaltz is playing with his brother at North Dakota, the two could become fierce rivals someday in the NHL as the younger Schmaltz was chosen in the first round, 20th overall, of the 2014 draft by the Chicago Blackhawks.
Christian Dvorak, a native of Frankfort, IL, spent one season with the Mission U18 team and appeared in nine USHL games with the Chicago Steel in 2012-13 with the intent of playing college hockey before joining the OHL's London Knights this season. A serious knee injury in January ended his regular season after 33 games and he missed the OHL playoffs but was able to skate in three games during the Memorial Cup. The injury did not hurt his draft stock, however, as Dvorak was chosen in the second round, 58th overall, of this weekend's draft by the Arizona Coyotes.
Forwards Anders Bjork, Blake Clarke, Seamus Malone, are former Chicago Mission players who were not highly ranked heading into the 2014 draft, with only Bjork having his name called, by the Boston Bruins, during NHL Draft Weekend.
Bjork, a native of Wisconsin, played for the U.S. NTDP the past few seasons and scored two goals in seven games at the 2014 U18 World Championship for the USA's gold medal squad. He will play for Notre Dame where his father, Kirt Bjork, and cousin Erik Condra, who now plays for the Ottawa Senators, also played.
Follow Tony Piscotta on Twitter via @HockeyNJ12