by Amy Johnson, Managing Editor, HockeyPub.com

PITTSBURGH, PA — Max Pacioretty, Jarred Tinordi, Alex Galchenyuk, Michael McCarron.  What do those names mean to you?  To many fans they represent the promise, strength, and hope of the Montreal Canadiens’ next generation.  For the Habs management, they represent four highly valued first round picks taken in recent years at the NHL Entry Draft.  And for the folks at USA Hockey, they represent the success of years of development that they’ve put into programs and players all across America.

According to statistics, Americans have been selected 23 per cent of the time in the first or second rounds of the NHL Entry Draft since 1999.  Six Americans have been taken as the first overall pick in the history of the draft.  There’s no denying that players from the U.S. are making a bigger impact on the professional hockey scene every year, and it’s a trend that USA Hockey hopes to continue.

Recently, they held the 2nd Annual CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, PA.  The game featured 40 top American-born players eligible for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, coached by Mark Johnson and Joe Mullen.  “We’re getting number one picks, we’re getting quite a few high picks and, you know, we’re seeing them play in the NHL and that’s all because they start this process when they’re 14, 15 years old,” says Coach Johnson.

Ryan MacInnis, who currently plays for the Kitchener Rangers, had a lot of good things to say about USA Hockey and the Prospects Game.  “I think it really gets the name out, all the names of the American players, and that anybody can really play anywhere.”  By anywhere, he’s referring to the fact that although, like him,  many players come from the cold and snowy mid-western region, there are a growing number of quality hockey players coming out of less traditional areas of the country.

Thatcher Demko, one of the two goaltenders for Coach Johnson’s team, comes from the sunny land of San Diego, CA and believes that the influence of NHL teams in warmer climates has really inspired young athletes in those areas to take up the sport.  He was one of five Californian players on the roster, along with players from Minnesota, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Ohio.

Ryan MacInnis, after the morning skate
Ryan MacInnis, after the morning skate

After a brief morning skate, where both teams had a chance to get acquainted with their linemates and coaches, it was the media’s turn to get to know these up-and-coming hockey stars.  Many of the players were already familiar with their teammates, having played with them growing up and by being involved in USA Hockey’s developmental programs.  One such pairing was MacInnis and Blake Clarke, who played on the same team growing up and have known each other since they were about seven years old.   When asked to describe MacInnis as a player Clarke was quick to reply, calling him “Lanky, good skater, he’s got good hands.  I’d say the one thing that stands out to me is his vision – he’s a great playmaker.”

When asked to give a scouting report on himself, MacInnis gave a similar summation.  “Big center, I’m a two-way forward, too.  Skating is not bad, pretty good shot, and good vision.”  He seems to be enjoying his experience in Kitchener so far, too.  “I like it.  It’s a great town, great fans, great teammates, the staff is awesome.  We’re kind of like role models in the town.  It’s a good feeling.”

Ryan also had positive things to say about Sonny Milano, a 6’0″, 183 lb. left-winger from New York.  “[He’s a] really skilled player.  He’s actually really fun to play with, he’ll get you the puck if he’s in the corner.”

Thatcher Demko, after morning skate
Thatcher Demko, after morning skate

The coaches noticed Clarke’s shot right away, which he says is a result of a lot of practice.  “I’ve got the net set up in the garage back home in St. Louis, so I’ve been shooting a couple hundred pucks a day since probably nine or ten years old.  That’s something I’ve always tried to take pride in.”  He even drew some chuckles in the media scrum as he told the tale of shooting a puck through that garage wall into the china cabinet in the dining room on the other side.  Guess that IS a pretty good shot!

Demko was given the same task of describing his best assets as a goaltender.  “I try to use my size as best I can but at the same time use my athleticism to my advantage.”  At 6’3″ and 190 lbs., Thatcher is already making strides on the goaltending roster at Boston College where he is a freshman.  He says he chose to follow the NCAA route instead of going to junior hockey because he wanted to develop more as a player.

One recurring theme that kept coming up was the high number of NHL scouts slated to be in attendance for that night’s game.  “Obviously everybody thinks about it – how can you not?  There’s gonna be two hundred NHL guys there but I think the key to success is probably just to not think about it.  If you’re not focused on the game you’re not going to play the game well,” said Demko.  Coach Mullen echoed that sentiment, saying “When the puck drops, they gotta put that stuff out of their minds and just play hockey.”

Dan Bylsma, Ceremonial Puck Drop
Dan Bylsma, Ceremonial Puck Drop

Before long, it was time to do just that.  Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma was on hand to conduct the ceremonial puck drop at the start of the game, to which the Consol Energy Center erupted with applause.  The crowd was also pleased to see Coach Johnson and Coach Mullen, both of whom spent time playing for the Penguins.

After a jittery first period left both teams scoreless, the goal horn finally sounded early in the second period when Keegan Iverson fed a puck to Dylan Larkin to put Team Johnson on the board first.  As the players began to settle in and focus on the game, things also started to get a little more physical: Hunter Warner and Ryan Mantha were both penalized in the second period.

But just when it started to look like perhaps this game was going to simply be a friendly match of talented youngsters, the third period opened things up in a whole new way.  Jack Dougherty tied the game early in the third with a powerplay goal assisted by Ryan Donato and Sarnia Sting defenseman Tony DeAngelo.  Less than three minutes later Iverson would pot his own goal, with Larkin this time providing the assist.  Team Johnson now led 2-1.

Another four minutes passed by and Sonny Milano tucked one into the net with the help of Alex Tuch and Nick Schmaltz.  At 3-1 for Coach Johnson, this was starting to look like a done deal.  But Team Mullen would have something to say about that.  Five minutes later Joe Wegwerth tallied a goal, assisted again by Ryan Donato.  It only took one minute for Team Johnson to retaliate, this time with a Chase De Leo goal, assisted by Ryan Hitchcock and Kevin Labanc.  An empty-netter by Shane Eisman put the game away for Team Johnson, with a final score of 5-2.  Keegan Iverson was named Player of the Game.

Keegan Iverson, Player of the Game
Keegan Iverson, Player of the Game

“They played really well as a group.  It’s fun from a scouting standpoint or even a coaching standpoint to watch kids when they’re not used to playing with certain players or other groups of defensemen and then suddenly something happens out there, a chemistry, and it’s nice to see,” said Coach Johnson after the game.

Ed Minney, the 6’4″, 191 lb. goaltender for Team Mullen had a great attitude after the loss, keeping his focus on what the game was really all about.  “I thought the guys were flying out there, a lot of physical play.  It was overall just a really, really good game.  Fun to be a part of.”  His coach had similar thoughts and was impressed with what he saw on the ice.  “It’s a showcase for them, and they showed what kind of talent they have out there.  It’s a hard-hitting game and they’re all fighting to be drafted.”

Everywhere you turned, you heard positive comments and reactions to the night’s event.  Players, coaches, members of the media, and scouts all seemed to agree that this was a much-needed platform for USA Hockey to promote its players to the ultimate level.  “A lot of credit goes to USA Hockey for the different things and the programs and the grassroots level people that are continually working and, you know, you’re reaping the benefits right now.”

Michael Turner, a right winger for Team Johnson, perhaps summed it up best when he said, “I think it’s just an honor to put on the Team USA jersey.”  For these 40 young athletes, being chosen to represent their country in a game like this was truly a dream come true.  And with any luck (and lots of hard work on the ice) they’ll realize even bigger dreams at next year’s draft.

If you thought that perhaps some of these players’ names sounded a bit familiar – you’re right!  In quite a few instances, members of the roster are part of families with NHL ties.  They are:

  • Ryan Donato, son of Ted Donato
  • Ryan MacInnis, son of Al MacInnis
  • Ryan Mantha, nephew of Moe Mantha
  • Jack Ramsey, son of Mike Ramsey
  • Nolan Stevens, son of John Stevens
  • Nick Schmaltz, brother of Jordan Schmaltz (St. Louis Blues first-round pick, 2012)

For a look at the full roster for the 2013 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, click HERE.

You can also see full line assignments from the game by clicking HERE.

Be sure to check out the full photo gallery from the morning skate, media scrums, and the game below!

Photo credits: Amy Johnson for Rocket Sports Media, Inc., All Rights Reserved

  • habbnack

    The Habs should change their name to the Momtreal Americans. Does that mean ther development system is better. Their goaltending is outstanding. I think goaltending will be a big question mark for canada, while the states will have outstanding netminders.

    • Amy

      USA Hockey has certainly made strides to continually improve their development system, which is showing with the quality of young prospects coming up through their system. It will be interesting to see if your prediction of solid goaltending coming out of the U.S. is correct! Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂