Cover Story: We Are Committed
February 10, 2016
By Joshua Boyd, USA Junior Hockey Magazine
The USA Hockey National Team Development Program is about to have visitors.
It is estimated there will be more than 300 players, coaches and college and pro scouts descending on USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., over Feb. 15-17.
The event is none other than the annual North American Hockey League Top Prospects Tournament, set to showcase the top players from each NAHL division plus a Selects team of NHL prospects from across the league.
This showcase gives college and pro scouts several chances to see the best uncommitted players from the NAHL, which already had more than 110 Division 1 commitments as of late January.
“The NAHL Top Prospects event is a testament of evolution, where I believe we have it now in the perfect place with the perfect number and type of players during an opportune time of year,” said NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld.
“It speaks to the level of the talent in this league and how strong this league has evolved,” said Bismarck Bobcats head coach Layne Sedevie, also head coach of Team Central at the Top Prospects Tournament. “It’s a great league and experience that allows these young men follow their dreams to the collegiate level.”
As for another draw for scouts, the USNTDP will be the sixth team in the six-team tournament. Add in the North American Prospects Hockey League 18U and 16U championships, and the NA3HL’s own Top Prospects Tournament in addition to the NAHL tournament games, and it’s a visual buffet of hockey at many various levels from which colleges can craft future year rosters.
“With the inclusion of the USNTDP, along with a team that is made up of selected NAHL players that are on the radar of NHL Central Scouting, I believe we have the perfect mix of talent there,” added Frankenfeld. “Most importantly, it continues to provide an opportunity for players on the divisional teams, who remain uncommitted heading into the event. Statistics continue to show us that the majority of those players will earn a NCAA commitment following their participation in the event, which is what it is all about.”
“It’s awesome. It’s unbelievable in terms of the amount of scouts that come out to the tournament,” said New Jersey Titans head coach Rich McKenna, who will be the head coach of Team East at the tournament. “It’s almost as big as the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minn., every September, in terms of identifying players.”
McKenna, a former college and United States Hockey League assistant coach, said he always made sure to scout the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament prior to coaching in the league. The benefits are many, and it helps both sides.
“For these 20-year-old players, this is the last chance to get a Division 1 commitment. For colleges, recruiting dollars run out quickly, so to have all these uncommitted players in one place gives great value,” he added.
“This allows our top players without college commitments to get great exposure,” added John LaFontaine, head coach of the Wichita Falls Wildcats and Team South.
It comes as no surprise to him that more than 200 coaches and scouts from the NCAA and NHL make the Top Prospects Tournament a must-see.
“The league continues to get higher-end players who improve the level of play each year,” added LaFontaine. “I’m very impressed at how strong the level of play has grown.”
The NAHL’s profile continues to grow each year as well, to the point where LaFontaine doesn’t have to do much in terms of education or promotion when recruiting for his Wildcats.
“It has been refreshing to not have to spend much time on selling the league as most potential players and their parents know that the league is producing strong college players,” LaFontaine added.
Marty Murray, a veteran of 270 NHL regular season and playoff games, continues to be impressed with the level of play both in game-to-game league play and especially at the Top Prospects Tournament.
“It’s just such a tremendous opportunity for our players in our league to be seen,” said Murray, head coach of the Minot Minotauros and a co-coach of the Selects team with the Janesville Jets’ Joe Dibble.
“The players should be in top form at this point in the season,” added Murray. “I’ve been in this league for five years now, and I’ve seen it gain more traction each year. That translates to more commitments each year. The NHL scouts know players in our league, as well, and you can tell by how many are on NHL Central Scouting rankings.”
Out of all the players who suit up to play in the NAHL, who don’t have college commitments already, only 100 – 20 each over five teams – will be chosen as the lucky ones for the Top Prospects Tournament.
It is a rare honor, and one that has been bestowed on some top NAHL talents in the past. NHL players such as Minnesota’s Christian Folin, Columbus’ Brandon Saad and New Jersey’s Keith
Kinkaid have graced the ice at past Top Prospects Tournaments, as well as several top-notch veterans of the NTDP.
Sedevie is ready to get the message across to his tournament team’s players before they step on the ice.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime to be sitting in this room, and you have to play as a team and take advantage of the situation that you have been put in,” he said.
While colleges do want to see good team players, the athletes also have to market themselves for their particular set of skills, said McKenna.
“When they get to their colleges, they’ll be playing their own systems, but [at the Top Prospects Tournament], I would ask the players ‘What are you better at than every other kid?’
“For each spot on a Division 1 roster, colleges have probably watched at least 20 kids. Suddenly, it’s down to you and another kid, and what are you going to
do to show that you deserve that college roster spot over the other player?” McKenna said.
While college coaches do want to see which set of particular skills a player might excel at, they also want to make sure they have a solid grasp on fundamentals.
“I would talk to the guys in locker room about compete level, back-checking, puck possession,” McKenna added. “Are you putting the puck into second opportunities instead of going 1-on-1 and just losing the puck? Where are you when the play is going on around you? Defensively, are you putting yourself into opportunities to get the puck back?”
Murray warns about players getting too worked up about the game, and all the eyes watching. Play your game, play to your strengths.
“I just tell them don’t try to do too much. The adrenaline’s pumping pretty good, but sticking to their game is the best opportunity for them to be seen,” said Murray. “The players are there for a reason, and we want them to go out and play their game. A lot of times, they’ll try to do something extra and that’s when you get yourself in trouble.”