Photo by Rena Laverty
It should not come as a surprise that USA Hockey's National Team Development Program blueliner Daniel Laatsch might have been a little more nervous than usual for his Jan. 1 home game. After all, he was going to face off against his future college team, the University of Wisconsin Badgers, and it was his opportunity to see how he stacked up.
“It was a great experience and a lot of fun to compete against my future teammates,” Laatsch said of the game, a 3-2 loss at USA Hockey Arena. “It was a little nerve-racking too because you are playing your future friends.
“We had a pretty good game and it was a tough loss. I think we played pretty solid all the way around. We had a couple chances that didn’t go our way and we could have won that game.”
Laatsch, who was born and raised in Altoona, Wisconsin, grew up rooting for his home state team.“I always watched Wisconsin growing up, obviously, being from Wisconsin. Going there and seeing the campus, they have a great coaching staff as well. It was hard to turn that down,” he said.
While the Badger game held special meaning for him, Laatsch understands the importance of all the college games for the NTDP. He knows that it will give him a jump start when he heads to Madison next year.
“It’s a step of being able to see the level that they are already at and what I have to do to maintain and be a good player next year,” said Laatsch. “Playing the college teams early really helps you prepare for what you will face next year.”
More than anything, he has learned a few important lessons along that way that he has been able to apply to games this season, whether it is against other college teams or playing in the USHL.
“The college teams never stop and are always tough to play against,” he said. “They are more ‘skilled’ teams and they are bigger, faster and stronger than any USHL team. Being able to play against them, we can’t give up any chances because they can finish them every chance. That is the biggest thing I am taking away — learning how to tone down the mistakes.”
The jump from the Under-17 to Under-18 season can be a big one, and Laatsch has identified some areas that have improved his development as a player.
“I would say my speed has been the biggest factor,” he said. “Last year, everyone was faster than me in most scenarios. This year, I’m stronger and faster and I can keep up better and make better plays.”
Photo by Rena Laverty
More than anything, it’s the little things that have helped him gain confidence, especially when it comes to playing in games.
“We do a lot of breakout drills and passing. Being able to know where everyone is going to be and having the crisp plays between your teammates is definitely making the difference,” said Laatsch.
Spending time together as a team also really helped to develop confidence.
“We are around each other all the time whether it is lifting, or practicing or study hall. We are always together. We travel together. It definitely brings us together,” Laatsch said.
Photo by Rena Laverty
The 6-foot-5, 180-pound defenseman has gained 20 pounds since he arrived in late August of 2018 to the NTDP. He credits the training staff in helping the team transition from a USHL schedule to playing college games.
“It’s just a step from last year,” he said. “The weight I gained over the summer and throughout last season, this year I could tell especially in the USHL that I was a lot stronger going into corners. It was a big jump playing college too. It was another jump, just like playing in the USHL last year. I have a long way to go but it’s been a good jump this year.”
Laatsch and his U18 teammates are getting ready to head to the Czech Republic for their second international tournament, the Five Nations from Feb. 2-9. Laatsch understands the importance of having another good showing.
“It was a big step for us to earn that first international tournament win [in November] and something that we were looking forward to after last year’s tournaments didn’t go the way we wanted,” he said. “We used that as motivation and worked hard over the summer and came back this year ready to go. We got our first tournament win and hopefully, we can get a few more.
“Our style is more hard work and gritty and outworking the opponents. We have skill on our team but that is what Coach [Seth] Appert likes to stress. We need to be hard to play against, be tough in the corners and not like the other team playing against us.”
At the end of the day, it’s very special for him to wear the Team USA jersey and it means even more in international competition.
“It’s a dream of mine as cliché as it sounds,” he said. “I always wanted to play here and be able to go against the best players in the country every day. It’s been a blast and an honor.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.