U.S. National Team program making changes in college, high school games

Minnesota has five U.S. National Team Development Program recruits set to attend.

Ben Goessling

Every city, every campus brings something else. At one place, it might be a tour of a new arena or facility; at another, it might be a constant swarm of attention from college coaches and players.

Yes, the Phil Kessel World Tour is in full swing, and it will make a stop Feb. 18 at Mariucci Arena, where Minnesota’s men’s hockey team will be the latest potential suitor vying for Kessel’s services.

Kessel might be the most highly sought-after U.S. hockey player in five years. And when he finally chooses the college he will attend in the fall, he will have turned down a who’s who of college programs.

His list of candidates includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Boston University and Boston College. While no one, not even Kessel, is quite sure where he’ll end up, there’s no question he’s been helped by his current surroundings.

Kessel is a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program, an elite hockey school in Ann Arbor, Mich., that takes the best 16- and 17-year-old players in the country through an intense schedule of exhibition games against many of the nation’s premier juniors and college programs.

Not only has the program made the Kessel sweepstakes something of a phenomenon among college hockey fans, it’s allowed the Verona, Wis., native to play against most of the programs he’s considering and view a side of college hockey most high school players never see.

“Everything is kind of based around Phil right now. Coaches just light up when they see him,” said Ryan Stoa, a Bloomington, Minn., native who has signed a letter of intent to play for the Gophers next year. “When we were at Boston University, they had everybody go on a tour of their new arena. But you could tell it was mostly for him.”

The speculation has reached a fever pitch. Kessel said he hasn’t narrowed down his choices yet, while Stoa said he thinks his teammate is headed to either Wisconsin or Minnesota.

But for his part, Kessel isn’t complaining about the extra attention, and he said he’s happy he gets an opportunity to look at so many programs.

Ron Rolston, the program’s under-18 team coach, estimates that out of approximately 180 alumni in the program’s seven-year history, 150 have gone to college.

And Minnesota has taken increased notice of the program as well.

Three current Gophers players – Nate Hagemo, Barry Tallackson and Jake Fleming – are alumni. Five current development program players – Stoa, Jeff Frazee, Mike Carman, Peter Mueller and Erik Johnson – have either signed letters of intent or verbally committed to the Gophers.

“In that program, you’re playing with the elite players in the country,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “They do a great job getting kids ready for the next level.”

A different philosophy

The training program – which Lucia credits for making Hagemo one of the most physically impressive freshmen he’s coached – involves three to four hours of training a day, including weightlifting roughly every other day and even boxing.

Players take classes either at Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School or Huron High School and arrive at the program’s training facility every day shortly after 2:00 p.m.

“It’s based around challenging kids at a higher level,” Rolston said. “You’ve got kids who are seniors in high school competing against 23-year-olds, and they have to battle and compete for loose pucks to be in the game.”

J.P. Parise is the director of hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s school in Faribault, Minn., which has two players with the program this year.

But Parise said Shattuck’s hockey academy is much more serious about academics than its competitor.

“We allow kids to do well in class,” said Parise, who added that Shattuck’s players are not allowed to miss more than six days of school in six months. “Their players are missing 20-some to 30-some days of school. Here, we can’t ask the kid to come in and do an extra hour (of training).”

Leaving home

With the increasing popularity of programs like the U.S. National Team Development Program (and Shattuck-St. Mary’s), local high school coaches are often caught in the middle – 10 of the 40 players in the program are native Minnesotans.

The Academy of the Holy Angels in Richfield, Minn., for example, won a state championship in 2002 but currently has two players (Carman and Johnson) in the U.S. program and lost Hagemo to the team three years ago.

“I think there is some self-interest, because the (coaches) want to keep their best players,” Rolston said. “But ultimately, it’s the kid’s choice.”

Carman’s father, Tom Carman, praised Holy Angels coach Greg Trebil for how he’s handled the departures, adding that Trebil still communicates regularly via e-mail with his son.

“Greg helped him weigh the pros and cons of it quite a bit,” Tom Carman said. “On one hand, losing players isn’t a good thing. But I think most coaches know it’s a good opportunity.”

But even as a coach who is increasingly recruiting players from Ann Arbor, Lucia said he can see its drawbacks.

“The hardest thing is probably that at 16, you have to make the decision to leave home,” he said. “As a parent, you only get so many years with your kids, and if it were my son (Tony), I don’t know how I’d feel about it.”

Gophers junior Gino Guyer said he was twice invited to the program and declined both times simply because he didn’t want to miss out on high school.

“A lot of guys are feeling the pressure to do it,” he said. “But for me, playing hockey for Greenway (High School in Coleraine, Minn.) wasn’t something I wanted to miss.”

Stoa, however, said he couldn’t see himself anywhere but in Ann Arbor.

As a sophomore in Bloomington Kennedy High School’s program, he said, he never thought about college hockey.

Now, he’s practically there.

“I’ll call my friends at home, and they’ll be playing Eastview (High School in Apple Valley, Minn.),” he said. “And we’re playing Maine. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Irmen is player of week

Gophers forward Danny Irmen was named WCHA offensive player of the week Tuesday on the heels of a hat trick in Minnesota’s 9-6 win over Minnesota State-Mankato on Friday.