NTDP well represented at Frozen Four

By Ken McKenna

If the measure of an amateur athletic program is the promotion of its trainees to bigger and better things, then the 2009 Frozen Four tournament taking place in Washington, D.C. provides ample evidence of the strength of the U.S. National Team Development Program. Eleven players taking part in the NCAA‘s showcase event spent time in the NTDP before moving on to their college careers, including eight players from the Boston University squad and three players representing Miami University.

Given the fact that many of the players that sign on to the NTDP program have an eye toward a career in the NHL, the ultimate indicator of success of this program is the number of players that are drafted by an NHL club. And in recent years, the number of draftees has been impressive, with several NTDP players annually being ranked among the top prospects for the NHL Draft.

But the presence of so many NTDP players at the Frozen Four is a definite feather in the cap of USA Hockey, the organization responsible for the development of this program. The eleven players taking part at this year’s tourney provides further evidence of the program’s success while also providing a vital stepping stone in the player’s path towards a pro hockey career.

In the case of BU, that school is icing what seems to be an entire squad of NTDP graduates. The eight former development players from the BU squad – Colin Wilson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Vinny Saponari, Colby Cohen, David Warsofsky, Brian Strait, Jason Lawrence, and Luke Popko – have been integral to the success of this year’s club. Wilson, in particular, has shone, turning in a season that has led to his selection as a finalist for college hockey’s top honor, the Hobey Baker Memorial Award.

One of Wilson’s counterparts on the Miami team, forward Justin Vaive, spent two years in the development program. Vaive , the son of former NHL star Rick Vaive, felt the NTDP had more to offer than simply going the junior or high school route.

The national program was definitely my first choice because of the approach to training that they have”, said Vaive. “It isn’t like junior hockey, where you train a bit but play more games. It more closely tracks the college approach, which appealed to me because that was the next step that I wanted to take. And you get to play in more international tournaments, which helps your development even more.”

For the lucky coaches that get to work with the players from that program, having NTDP players on the roster has been a definite plus as evidenced by the two teams having landed a berth in the Frozen Four finale.

Boston University head coach Jack Parker is an obvious proponent of the national program, although it isn’t his only area of recruitment.

Obviously, the talent in that program is what makes it attractive to our school and the other schools at this level”, stated Parker. “They tend to have some of the top, young talent, so it is always good for a program like ours to be able to have that talent play at our school. But it isn’t the only area that we focus on when recruiting, since you need to cast a wider net if you want to build a solid program.”

But Parker is certainly appreciative of the players that he has been able to recruit from the NTDP.

The players from that program have been very good to us these past few years, this year especially”, said an obviously pleased Parker. “We don’t necessarily target players from the NTDP, but that is just the way it has worked out for our program, so we’re happy about the results”

For coaches from smaller, less well known programs like Miami’s, landing top-flight talent from the national program can be more difficult than it is for more established programs like BU’s. Miami University head coach Enrico Blasi acknowledges the difficulty, but points to Miami’s increasing success in reeling in the NTDP talent. 

You only have, like, 45-50 players coming through that program, so competing with some of the bigger schools for that talent can be difficult for a smaller school like ours”, said Blasi. “But we’ve had better success in recent years in recruiting NTDP players, in part because of our growing success, but also because of the new facility (Steve Cady Arena) that we have in place.”

But the connection to the NTDP program doesn’t end once the players move on to bigger and better things. Vaive touched on the camaraderie that still exists with those that he played with in the national program.

I still stay in touch with a lot of those guys, whether it is by e-mail, texting or cellphone”, said Vaive. “You get to know other players really well when you play with them on a regular basis, and that was a good group of guys when I was there.”

Of course, Vaive is mindful of the fact that some of the players on BU’s roster that he’ll face in the NCAA championship game are fellow graduates of the NTDP.

I’m pretty good friends with Kevin Shattenkirk from that squad”, said Vaive. “We’ve stayed in touch since we left the program. We’ve talked a little about playing in this game, but it’s a friendly rivalry. We’ve kind of ribbed one another about it, though.”