Photo by Michael Caples
The 2023-2024 season officially kicks off on Sept. 29 when USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Under-17 team opens up USHL play at home, hosting the Green Bay Gamblers.
The U17 team is guided by Greg Moore, who is a former NTDP player and assistant coach serving in his first season as head coach. There’s even more program experience on the bench in assistant coaches Chad Kolarik and Ryan Hayes, both former NTDP players.
The coaching staff understands just how difficult the first season with the program can be and they are doing the little things to teach the players each day.
“It’s finding positive wins and details in each day,” Moore said. “It’s about the work ethic as we move forward. We reward them and focus on staying positive with the things we're asking them to do. It’s about the improvements we're looking to obtain over our timeline. We're less focused on the wins and losses, and more on the improvement.”
The U17 roster features 13 forwards, eight defensemen and three goaltenders, all from the 2007 birth year. The 24 players come from 13 different states, led by Minnesota with six players. One of those players is defenseman Donny Bracco (Freeport, N.Y.), who follows in his brother Jeremy’s footsteps to the NTDP. He has learned quite a bit over the first few weeks.
“It was tough [to start], but now we are easing into a rhythm,” he said. “It’s super fun being around the guys all day; it doesn’t get boring. Lifting was tough at the beginning. The whole year it doesn’t stop. It constantly makes you tired, but it will all be good in the end.
“My brother told me that the games will be harder than youth hockey. You need to keep it simple and take advantage of your two years here. It will be the best two years, especially for development.”
The U17 schedule will be challenging for the team’s development as it features games against the Upper Midwest High School Elite League, the NAHL, the USHL and three international events this year. The coaching staff understands the importance of breaking the schedule down into segments to make it seem manageable for the players.
“We have 11 games before the U17 challenge,” Moore said. “It will be a good time for our group to come together and our players to show us what they have in that 11-game stretch. We do our best to give equal opportunity to our players. When we go into the U17 Challenge, there will be a little switch as we put together power-play and penalty-kill units and players will be slotted for the first time this season.”
The U17s split a pair of exhibition games at the NAHL Showcase, defeating the El Paso Rhinos ,5-3, on Sept. 15 and losing, 7-3, to the New Mexico Ice Wolves on Sept. 16. After starting the season against Green Bay at home at USA Hockey Arena, the team then heads to Ohio to take on the Youngstown Phantoms on Sept. 30.
“They all came here to compete at a higher level and that is what this league will provide for them,” Moore said about the USHL season opener. “Playing two games gives us a starting point to where our team is at and what we are working on. We will have two weeks of practice and we know where we need to focus.”
Meanwhile, the U18s return their entire lineup from one season ago. The squad is led by second-year head coach Nick Fohr, who helped guide the U17 team to a 36-23-2-0 record last season, which included a USHL playoff appearance and three international tournament titles.
Photo by Michael Caples
For Fohr and his assistant coaches, Matt Gilroy and Ryan Bourque, the second season brings a different type of focus. While the team has had a full year of experience playing together, there are still things that need to be ingrained further into the players.
“Honestly, our approach so far has been to touch up on the things we learned and taught last year,” Fohr said. “This week, we tried to take steps into the next level, adding to our structure and how we play. Now we get into the new stuff, and it’s been good.”
Forward Brendan McMorrow (Lakeville, Minn.) has noticed a difference coming into this season. After tallying 31 points in 60 games last year, he worked hard during the offseason to prepare himself for his second year.
“I came into the NTDP at 150 pounds and by the time spring training was done, I was 175 pounds,” he said. “It really helped me become stronger on my skates. I learned things about nutrition and being able to use my body now. I’m playing a different style of hockey than I’m used it. I can go into the corners and compete against those bigger and older players.”
Cole Hutson (Chicago, Ill.) is coming off a stellar first season with the NTDP as his 68 points were the most in a single season for a defenseman in program history. Having played a chunk of his season with the U18 team, he’s hoping to use lessons from those players to help his teammates this season.
“For me, being in the locker room with the older guys last year, I really learned a lot,” he said. “Hopefully, I can share that knowledge with our team this year.”
The U18 schedule is designed to challenge its players. In addition to playing in the USHL, the squad will have games against NCAA Division I and III hockey teams, as well as three international tournaments.
Every team the U18s face will likely be aware of last season’s success, which Fohr predicts will be an added challenge for his team.
“The success we had last year makes the bullseye on our back even bigger,” Fohr said. “There will not be an easy night this year. Every night will be difficult. It’s really an educational piece.”
The long and grueling schedule all leads up to the IIHF U18 Men’s World Championship, which kicks off on April 25.
“Our end goal is to win the U18 championship,” Hutson said. “We need to do anything we can to build confidence and get better every day to achieve that goal. It is our team motto.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.