Ryan Suter stood near the blueline, flashing his typical big grin as he watched a group of 11 and 12-year-olds battling for a puck during a small area game. Meanwhile, hovering high about the ice surface at the Kettler Capitals Ice Plex, a group of his potential Olympic teammates were leaning over a railing, envious that they couldn’t be on the ice as well.
“I’m sure they’d much rather be out here with these kids instead of the stuff that they’re doing,” said Suter as he cheered on good plays and big saves while casting occasional glances upward. “I’m happy to be out here. Look at them, they’re up there watching and drooling.”
At the other end of the ice, Patrick Kane was having fun playing keep-away from an onslaught of Peewee puck hawks while working up his next high-light reel shootout move on young netminders.
“It looks like they’re all working out, and this is a lot more fun than working out,” added Kane, who is fresh off his Conn Smythe winning performance with the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
“Even today I’m out here trying to work on things. You have a lot of little kids coming at you and trying to get the puck, and I’m trying maneuver around them and make a good play. It’s a big part of the game. Those small games are a lot of fun for me to be part of, whether it’s trying to score goals or moving around a defenseman, it’s always fun.”
For the six NHL players who took time out of interviews and other monotonous but necessary tasks associated with Olympic participation, it was an eye-opening experience to see the American Development Model in action.
The two clinics – one for 8 & Under players and the other for older players – were a showcase of USA Hockey’s efforts to make more Patrick Kanes, players with great skill who still have a passion to get better even with two Stanley Cups to his credit.
Under the direction of ADM regional managers, Scott Paluch and Bob Mancini, approximately 50 kids packed the ice for each session, with local coaches from two of USA Hockey’s model ADM programs, the Kettler (Va.) Capitals and Montgomery (Md.) Youth Hockey Association, pitching in to provide instruction in what could only be described as organized chaos.
Joining Kane and Suter on the ice were several other USA Hockey heavyweights in Phil Kessel, Seth Jones, Jack Johnson and local favorite John Carlson, who all skated away impressed by what they saw.
“I think it’s great because they get to work on all facets of the game,” Carlson said afterward. “At one station they’re working on their skating and another they’re working on passing and another it’s shooting so it’s great. Obviously the kids look good out there so something is working.”
More than just showing off for potential members of the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team, it was a rare opportunity to demonstrate to the national media members gathered here this week what the future of the game looks like.
“It was a great time with all the NHL players out there. What an experience. They may be in their 20s and playing hockey for a living but they’re all big kids at heart,” said Maurice DeNuccio, a coach with the Washington Little Caps.
DeNuccio started coaching with his oldest son Trent, 14, was a Mite-aged player. In the years since his youngest son Grant, 8, began playing, DeNuccio has seen a dramatic difference not only in the quality of station-based practices, which keep kids moving for an entire ice session, but also the skills they develop along the way.
“I think it’s the greatest thing,” he said. “These kids, by the time they turn 14 or 15 years old, they’re going to be phenomenal in the terms of their ability to pass the puck and work together as a team. I see it today. The older kids that are 14 or 15 years who didn’t have the ADM opportunity, they lack in some of those skills.”
And that’s what this ladder of development is all about. By sticking to this top-to-bottom player development plan, there will be an even bigger pool of American players in the NHL, like the players who spent part of the Men’s National Camp on the ice, as well as those players who could only look on with envy.
And as Kane said while signing autographs at the end of the practice to an 11-year-old who proclaimed that some day he too would be an NHL star.
“You have at least seven or eight years to get there. Just have fun being a kid.”