Over the past few days, there's been some interesting attempts at dissecting what exactly helped the United States win their second World Juniors gold medal. It's a refreshing change from the usual dissections of what went wrong for the US.
As usual, attention was turned towards the United States National Development Program, which is always the subject of controversy. USCHO's Todd Milewski wrote an excellent article covering the issue. People seem to want to make the World Juniors a referendum on the success or failure of the NTDP, which I've never subscribed to. Most of the players have been out of the program for a year or two by the time they get to the World Juniors, and many players never played in the program at all. If anything, I prefer the April World U18 championships, which features most of the NTDP team in their final test at the program. But that doesn't mean I don't believe the NTDP played a huge role in the gold medal on Tuesday.
By now I'm sure everyone has seen the quotes from Dean Blais about picking "the right players" and picking team guys over "superstars". What's crazy is that the players he is talking about are guys like Jordan Schroeder, Kyle Palmieri, Jeremy Morin, and Ryan Bourque. All NTDP kids that over the years have developed reputations of being supremely talented, but at times undisciplined and selfish. But when it came down to crunch time, they were right down there blocking shots and sacrificing their body to help their team win. That's not something you can conjure up at a moment's notice, or learn at a camp over a long weekend in North Dakota. It's something learned through a demanding domestic and international schedule over two years.
That, to me, is the bread-and-butter of the NTDP. Take kids that would otherwise be big fish in a small pond and give them a place to play where they can learn to become team hockey players, and learn what it takes to beat top competition. The argument against the program is that these top players will develop their skills anywhere, and that's true to an extent. But I think the NTDP develops more than just skating and shooting. There's been controversy over the NTDP the past couple of years with some high profile players--including a couple of the new gold medalists mentioned above--misbehaving and getting suspended. Some viewed those suspensions as a problem with the program, but they were part of the teaching process of how to be part of a team, and those difficult decisions eventually paid off on junior hockey's biggest stage.
The other aspect of the American victory that stood out to me was the wonderful diversity of the US hockey system. Of the five Minnesotan players on the team, there were four very different routes taken by the players to get to this point. Jordan Schroeder and Danny Kristo each left Minnesota after their freshman year of high school to join the NTDP. Mike Lee left Roseau after his junior year of high school to play in the USHL. Derek Stepan left Hastings High School to play at Shattuck-St. Mary's Prep. Jake Gardiner played out his high school career at Minnetonka High School.
Jason Zucker left his home to move to Detroit and play for Compuware. Matt Donovan stayed in the south to play AAA hockey. Some players chose to play in the CHL. Some chose to go to the NCAA. There's always a lot of talk about "the right path" for players to take, but the truth is, they all lead to the same place, as long as the player has the talent, drive and determination to get there.