The North American Hockey League was back in Ann Arbor, Mich., this week, where college and professional coaches and scouts were out in full force to get a look as some of the brightest young hockey players in the U.S.
“I think we hit the ball out of the park again with both events," NAHL commissioner Mark Frankenfeld said of the league’s second annual Top Prospects Tournament and its second Future Prospects Tournament of the season. “I don’t think there’s any question that both the Top Prospects participants and Futures players benefited from all the exposure.”
Close to 100 scouts were on hand at the Ice Cube for the five-day festivities, including head coaches from a few elite Division I programs as well as NHL Central Scouting. That bodes well for the participating players, as over 20 who played in last year’s tournament picked up Division I scholarships after the event.
“Seeing so many coaches and scouts from top Division I colleges and the NHL is nothing new at our showcases, but it's always nice to see,” Frankenfeld added.
For Darren Blue, an assistant coach at Minnesota State-Mankato, the Top Prospects Tournament has quickly become a can’t-miss scouting venture as he charts potential players for his WCHA program.
“It’s proven to be a great opportunity for the selected players to showcase their talents in front of a large number of colleges,” said Blue, whose Mavericks dress four former NAHL players. “We certainly recognize the talent level this league has to offer.”
Brian Meisner, an assistant coach at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks of the CCHA, was on board with those sentiments.
“It’s a must-see event for our staff,” he said. “We feel there are NAHL players who really come into their own as the season progresses and it’s great to see them in a very competitive environment."
And the exposure wasn’t just limited to the NAHL’s Top Prospects; the 36 Midget and Bantam teams that also competed at the Ice Cube as part of the Future Prospects Tournament also benefited.
“This event is important to our players because it gives them the opportunity to play in front of coaches and scouts from many different levels,” said Dean Dixon, head coach of the Lansing Capitals team that won the tourney’s U18 championship. “The collection of coaches and scouts was fantastic and the exposure couldn’t have been better.
“Also, the players get an opportunity to watch the junior players compete and get an idea where they need to be, talent-wise, to play in the NAHL.”
“The chance to see some great younger players from around the
country (at the Futures tournament) makes the trip even better," Meisner added.
Both U.S. National Teams - Team Stars and Team Stripes - went undefeated at the tournament with 2-0 records. The South Division finished at 2-1, with the North and Central both forging 1-2 records. The West went 0-3 in the three-game round robin.
The Central’s Brandon Brodhag (four goals, assist) and Alex Carlson (five assists), both North Iowa Outlaw forwards, finished tied for the top spot among tournament scorers with five points apiece.
U.S. Under-17 Team goaltender Jack Campbell stopped 17 of 18 shots in his only appearance, good for a tournament-best 1.00 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. St. Louis’ Keith Kinkaid went 1-0 in two appearances to compliment a 1.34 goals-against average and a .952 save percentage.
Second-year Bismarck goaltender Matt Grogan might not have stolen the show with his numbers, but his solid play certainly wasn’t lost among the scouting contingent in attendance.
“I talked to a few schools,” said Grogan, who went 1-1 in his two appearances. “I think I put on a good show for the coaches and scouts that were there.”
Mahoning Valley Phantoms forward Johnny Meo was also impressed with what the tournament had to offer.
“It was a really cool experience,” said the third-year forward. “Usually you’re out there talking trash on the other guys in the North (Division), but there we got to play with them and it was fun to get to know some of the best players in our division.
“On top of that, we got to play three games in front of a ton of scouts, and you can’t beat that.”
“I have no doubt the tournament opened a lot of doors for everyone on our division’s roster,” said North Division head coach Bob Mainhardt, head coach of the Phantoms.
From a recruiting perspective Meisner, for one, puts a lot of stock in Top Prospects because of the competitiveness of each of the games.
“You can tell the players and coaches show a lot of pride in their divisions, which makes the games a lot of fun to watch,” he said. “It’s not your typical all-star game; there’s lot of pride on the line.”
Along with Lansing’s U18 win, Compuware took home Future Prospects championship banners in both the U16 and U14 divisions.
According the Dixon, the talent level was top-notch across the board.
“We were able to play five teams that we haven’t played before, and the best part was three of the teams were ranked higher in the country than we were,” he said. “We didn’t have one easy game.”
“We’ve only been hosting our Futures events for a couple of years, but I think this tournament was probably the best when you start talking about competitiveness,” said David Lee, the NAHL’s director of hockey operations. “There were a number of big-time matchups in all three divisions, which was exciting for both the teams and the scouts.”
Frankenfeld was also quick to credit the staff at the Ice Cube and the hospitality of the Holiday Inn-Ann Arbor, the host hotel of the tournament, for making the week a success on so many fronts.
“This tournament doesn’t happen without them, plain and simple,” he said.
“Overall, the NAHL did a great job hosting,” said Dixon. “The support staff was there every step of the way and provided any assistance when we needed them. I believe the location also helped this be a successful tournament.”
“It’s a first-class event,” Meisner added.
Who will land a Division I chance from the tournament remains to be seen, but, by all accounts, the number should mirror last year’s number of 20-plus who made the leap.
“We should match that this year, if not beat it,” said Frankenfeld.
Top Prospects Tournament photos are available for purchase at NAHLPhotos.com.