Photo by Rena Laverty
The Under-18 season with the USA Hockey National Team Development Program is the time many players take a step up to the next level, and that was the message from head coach, Seth Appert, to forward, Ty Smilanic.
“He tells me that I can be the best player I want to be but it’s up to me if I want that,” said Smilanic. “If I want to get drafted, that is up to me and how much I want it. I take that attitude every day that I want more than the next guy and hopefully, it helps me along the way.
“You can tell that Coach Appert cares a lot about his players. He will be hard on you, but he does care and wants what is best for you.”
That is a big reason why the 6-foot-1, 170-pound Smilanic credits the program and coaching staff in helping to develop his game, particularly in one area.
“Becoming a full 200-foot player is where my game has grown the most,” explained Smilanic. “To get to the next level, they really stress that here and I have been working on that to become a complete 200-foot player.”
He credits the NTDP resources for a big part of his growth and development.
“It’s hard to pick just one aspect. This is a world-class facility and you have a world-class weight room to a world-class staff on hand. And with Ms. [Lisa] Vollmers [director, student-athlete services], you even have a great teacher there as well,” he said.
It should come as no surprise that Smilanic has learned plenty about himself since arriving in Plymouth, Michigan, a little over a year and half ago. He is proud of what he has accomplished in that time.
“Here you face so much adversity so I think what I have learned about myself, I can handle that adversity better than I thought I could,” he said. “I think that is really key especially if you want to get to the next level. Adversity is a big thing you have to overcome.”
Photo: Rena Laverty
That adversity that Smilanic and his U18 teammates faced last year in their first season is paying dividends this year. He credits the May training in helping to bring the team together.
“We all have buddies back home that by May they were home and doing normal high schooler stuff,” he said. “For us, in that time, we were going to school and we were going to the rink and lifting for two hours together. We embraced it. We didn’t look at it as a negative but more as a positive that we are building as a collective group. I think that brought us together over that hard time, especially if you are going together as a team.”
The U18s have won six straight USHL games and picked up a few collegiate wins as well as the squad’s first international tournament title — the Five Nations in Sweden in early November. For Smilanic, it has been a group effort in each and every game.
“We are a collective group,” he said. “We may not be the most skilled team that has ever come through here, but we really care about each other and we are one happy family. Knowing that the guy to the left and to the right of you has your back. That is a special feeling we have as a group.
“We all felt that we were close, and we should have maybe won an international tournament last year. This year, it wasn’t our game to win; it was our game to lose. We went in with that mindset that we could do that. We really proved that we are a team to be reckoned with.”
Photo by Rena Laverty
Smilanic could get used to hearing the U.S. national anthem, which in international competition is played at the end for the winning team. Hearing it in November after the U18s beat Sweden to win the tournament was something that Smilanic will never forget.
“It was great to hear it in November,” he said. “It was definitely special and a feeling that I have never had before, being able to say I won gold for my country. I hope I have an opportunity to do it two more times this year and I’ll be pretty happy about that.”
After completing his final season with the NTDP, the Denver native will head further east to play his college hockey at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. It was actually an easy decision for him to make.
“When I went out to visit, I fell in love with the campus, the players and the coaches,” said Smilanic. “I could tell that they cared about me as a person and a player. They would give me the opportunity, even next year, to become a top player. That was the biggest thing for me. I want to be able to do that next year and not wait, just because I am a freshman. That was for sure the biggest thing.”
He will definitely walk into Quinnipiac with plenty of experience under his belt next year and understands just how important the NTDP’s college schedule has been for his development as a player.
“This is the one place in the world where 17-year-olds are playing college games,” said Smilanic. “It’s great for us as a team but it’s great for me individually to get that experience and understand the step from youth hockey to the USHL is big but the step from USHL to college is even bigger. It’s good to get that experience. Next year, the feeling-out process isn’t as long, and you can jump right in.”
For now, Smilanic is focused on his final season in Plymouth and bearing in mind the lessons learned from coach Appert.
“I need to play my game and be a team player and do the best I can,” Smilanic said. “Just like everyone else on this team, I want to be on the team in April and represent my country at the U18 worlds and hopefully, win a gold medal with my team.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.