There was infighting within USA Hockey. There was a heated physical altercation over recruiting a player. There was the agent who got fired for buying kegs and hiring exotic dancers to recruit teenagers.
There were parents who signed guardianship of their sons over to people they had never met. There was a boxing ring. There was a trip to Russia, where political protesters and armed soldiers surrounded a game’s rink.
Then there was the legacy that came from all those events.
The United States national team development program has become well known among hockey fans. The NTDP, as it’s more commonly known, has become the proving ground for some of America’s top underage male talents before they reached the NHL.
In total, 91 first-round picks and 380 NHL draft picks have come through the NTDP since the program started in 1996 and began play in 1997. Those NHL players include Jack, Luke and Quinn Hughes; Patrick Kane; Auston Matthews; Seth Jones; Brady and Matthew Tkachuk; Tage Thompson; James van Riemsdyk; Trevor Zegras.
While those players and the program that helped foster their development have become familiar, the origin story behind the NTDP itself isn’t well known.
ESPN spoke with more than 20 people, including the NTDP’s creators, its first coaching staff and the players from the first class about the beginnings of a program that forever changed the face of men’s hockey in America.
“Even now, and it’s more than 20 years later, I have a 14-year-old son who plays with a phenom and I know that kid’s goal is to get invited to the NTDP,” said former NHL defenseman Jordan Leopold, who was part of the NTDP’s first class. “That was nice to hear and it validates what the program is supposed to be. If you want to get there and take advantage of the opportunity, you can do a lot.”
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AN OVERALL LACK of international success forced USA Hockey to confront why it was struggling to even reach the podium, let alone win tournaments. The U.S. combined for three podium appearances between the IIHF U20 World Junior Championships and the IIHF Men’s World Championships from 1981 to 1996.
Ron DeGregorio, a former USA Hockey president who was involved with USA Hockey in numerous roles for more than 40 years, said they wanted to find a national team coach to work with high-performing players and accelerate their development.
That coach would oversee the national junior team, the men’s national senior team and be an assistant for the men’s Olympic team for the 1998 Games, the first year the NHL allowed professionals to play at the Olympics.
They hired Lake Superior State University head coach Jeff Jackson.
Jackson was an assistant who took control of the Lake Superior State program at the start of the 1990-91 season and turned it into a national powerhouse. The Lakers reached six straight NCAA tournaments, advanced to three national title games and won two championships.
Jackson said he wasn’t looking to leave LSSU. But he was drawn to the new job due to USA Hockey’s need to improve upon its poor results at international competitions.
He knew from personal experience, having coached the USA at the 1995 World Juniors, where the team struggled due to a lack of continuity between players. Jackson described it as “one of the most disheartening experiences” of his career.
DeGregorio said Jackson came up with the concept that became the NTDP. Jackson presented USA Hockey with a plan: They would take the strongest American male talents between 16 and 18 years old and develop them into players who could excel at the next level.
Jackson said doing “it the right way” meant hiring a staff that could recruit players, find billet families (local families who players live with) and enroll the teenagers in high school. It also meant refurbishing the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. The Cube, which was the home of the NTDP until 2015, was already established, but the arena and USA Hockey worked together to add more space for the NTDP.
Jackson hired Michigan Tech head coach Bob Mancini and University of Maine interim coach Greg Cronin. He also hired Lake Superior assistant athletic director Scott Monaghan to be the program manager.
Jackson said the biggest unknown they faced in creating the NTDP was the number of people who spoke out against the program.
“Someone said to me that no one knew what we were doing. That’s not true,” said Mancini, who is now USA Hockey’s assistant executive director of hockey development. “It’s not that we didn’t know what we were doing. There was just no precedent.”
Jackson and his staff heard how the program should be a six-week summer course. Jackson said the only way to make change was if the NTDP were a year-round program with two teams separated by age in the form of a U-17 and a U-18 squad.
Jackson said there was infighting among different factions of USA Hockey, high school hockey and those at USA Hockey’s headquarters who were against doing a year-round program. There were states that held meetings with their high school associations about the NTDP. Herb Brooks, coach of the legendary 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, urged Jackson to not go through with the NTDP.
Leopold said he remembers going on a Minneapolis radio show and having one of the guest panelists criticize him for joining the NTDP.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. What did I get myself into?'” Leopold said.
“We were fighting against it those first two or three years,” Jackson said. “When I left, I was almost broken at that time. It was that intense and negative. The kids never saw it and that was a positive.”
Being in Ann Arbor was also an issue. Mancini said the logic for using Ann Arbor as the home base is that it was centrally located. But he said there were college coaches who felt like the NTDP being in Ann Arbor was a recruiting tool for schools like Michigan and Michigan State.
The NTDP also threatened the traditional American development model. Cronin explained how, traditionally, a player stayed in one community until it was time to go to college. Even then, they could still be close to home by choosing a nearby school.
That approach provided a sense of community pride for those local programs. They saw the NTDP as a deviation from that.
“We were looked at like pirates and the bounty was the player,” Cronin said. “You spin it as, ‘It’s good for the country. It’s good for the kid and their development.’ They knew that. But it was also like, ‘We’ve had this kid in our program for 13 years and now you are going to take him?!'”
The caliber of player the NTDP recruited for the first U-18 and U-17 class included future NHL first-round picks Rick DiPietro, Ron Hainsey, Barrett Heisten and David Tanabe, along with players taken in the later rounds who reached the NHL such as John-Michael Liles, Brad Winchester and Leopold.
Mancini said his first real inkling that the NTDP had its detractors came when he had an altercation with an assistant coach of a Triple A hockey team.
“I was physically assaulted. I’ll never forget it was Andy Hilbert’s father, Scott, who had to come in and stand between us,” Mancini said. “He had to come and stop what was going on. That assistant coach saw me, walked around the rink and tried to physically remove me from the building.”
Hilbert joined the NTDP, became a second-round pick and played in more than 500 professional games between the NHL and AHL.
Jackson said recruiting players came with the challenge of competing against agents, major junior teams or even some colleges that may have wanted a player to develop elsewhere before coming to their school.
He remembers when a low-level agent held a party for 16-year-old players at an airport hotel where there were kegs and exotic dancers.
“The one positive thing for me with that airport hotel story is we had a young man, his name was Joe Goodenow on the U-18 team,” Jackson said. “His dad was the executive director of the NHLPA and all it took was one phone call and that agent got fired. But there are multiple stories like that. Some are funny and some are not so funny.”
AN ALL-CONSUMING ENVIRONMENT with daily practices, off-ice conditioning, strength training with the promise of playing better, older and more physically mature competition over the span of more than 80 games, all while meeting the grade-point average standards to remain eligible.
These were the main points pitched by the NTDP to recruit players.
“I played 100 games my senior year or something like that,” said Liles, a former NHL defenseman who played on the first U-17 team. “You’re playing junior, you’re playing out of your comfort zone. … You go from playing 45 games at prep school to anywhere between 80 to 95 games and playing against amazing competition.”
Enter Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Leopold said Minnesota high school hockey had good competition. But it was nothing like facing the Sedins at international tournaments. Brett Henning recalled receiving specific instructions about what to do against the Sedins on a faceoff — only to have the plan fall apart.
“There were eight seconds left on a D-zone draw and Jeff said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let them win the draw,'” said Henning, who was drafted by the New York Islanders. “I don’t remember all the details but I remember [Henrik] tapped it through my legs and they scored. Jeff said to me, ‘That was the exact opposite of what I wanted you to do.'”
Watching the Sedins left Liles thinking, “That’s some amazing talent!” Tanabe asked himself, “How am I going to close that gap?” only to have Mancini tell him during his recruitment that he was not as far along as he should be.
Tanabe saw that as motivation.
“You’re thinking, ‘How much better were they than us?’ They were so far in front of us,” said Tanabe, who became an NHL defenseman. “They were producing in the Swedish professional league and I feel like they were playing in the pro league at 16 and then producing at 16 and 17. That’s a wake-up call when you are a 17-year-old kid and excelling in a pro league.”
Coming to the NTDP also meant leaving home, leaving family and friends behind while also attending a new high school. Every player needed their parents to sign a power of attorney letter transferring limited guardianship over to their sons’ billet parents.
In order for the NTDP to provide an official local address so their players could attend school in Ann Arbor, they needed to be compliant with Michigan state law. That’s why billet parents had to be granted limited guardianship.
Monaghan said the NTDP still follows that process to this day.
“If you are doing junior hockey and are creating a program, you are going to need to find a place to house kids,” Monaghan said. “You can never be far enough ahead on housing. You are asking someone to take someone else’s teenage son into their house, be their guardian and take care of them.”
The NTDP’s first class arrived in Ann Arbor to a facility that was still under construction. They were limited to mainly doing off-ice workouts before construction was finished, which allowed them to finally see what Jackson and his staff had planned for them.
“I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be,” Leopold said. “We practiced almost every day or did something. You try to have a social life, but you don’t have much of one.”
Among the skills they learned in the first year at the NTDP was boxing.
While today’s game has become more about skill, fighting played a major role in the sport back when the NTDP began. Cronin said the NTDP’s schedule saw them play Ontario Hockey League (OHL) teams, which meant they’d be facing older competition with more size and strength who were also looking to fight if necessary.
Henning said those OHL teams thought the NTDP players were “entitled” and the games were “pretty nasty” in nature.
“Our first meeting was at the end of August and there were 60-something kids in the room,” Cronin said. “I asked, ‘How many of you guys have been in a street fight before?’ Two guys put their hands up and I was like, ‘Uh oh.'”
Liles explained how Cronin’s boxing class went well beyond players learning self-defense.
“Cro was huge on body language,” Liles said. “It was always, ‘Johnny, your body language is terrible!’ with his South Boston accent. Looking back, it made a difference in who I was and who I became and the confidence I had going forward.”
Another item that left an impression on the first class was playing in the Six Nations Tournament in Russia.
Henning said they traveled for “36 straight hours,” a trip that involved flying to Moscow before driving what Leopold said felt like three hours to Yaroslavl. Monaghan said the team stayed at an old training center for one of the nation’s former military teams.
“There were German Shepherds, armed guards and it was creepy,” Leopold said. “We had one phone in the whole place to call home every night. … It was really eye-opening with where we were in society.”
Leopold said they drank bottled water because they were told to not drink the tap water. Henning and Tanabe said the team ate the same meal every day, but didn’t agree on what it was. Henning said it was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while Tanabe said it was pickled fish.
Political protesters met players at the game and held signs that read, “Get out of Iraq” and “Go home Americans. Our eyes are on you.” And there were more armed guards surrounding the rink.
“I remember playing in front of 10,000 people dressed in black clothing, smoking cigarettes with armed guards,” Tanabe said. “That’s the type of stuff being in Russia, where you are getting pushed psychologically and emotionally to perform well in a hostile environment.”
Monaghan said the NTDP lost every game at the tournament.
“We got our tails handed to us,” he said. “Two of the guys we played against were the Sedin brothers. We ran into them again and they used us as a turnstile on the way to a European junior championship.”
THE NTDP’S ORIGINAL coaching staff was together for two years. Cronin left first as he was hired to be an NHL assistant. Jackson left after three years to coach in the OHL with Mancini leaving after four seasons to become an NHL scout.
Even after its first staff left, the NTDP continued to face skepticism. But it also started to see results.
In 1999, Tanabe made history by being the first NTDP player to be drafted when he went in the first round, while DiPietro went No. 1 a year later. Altogether, the NTDP had 29 players drafted from that first class over a two-year cycle.
Soon first-round picks and large draft classes became common. In 2006, Erik Johnson went No. 1 to lead a class with six first-rounders. A year later, Kane and van Riemsdyk went first and second in a class with five first-rounders.
As of Nov. 1 this season, all but two NHL teams had at least one NTDP alum on their active rosters.
Even with the NTDP’s success, Monaghan said people may not fully understand what it took for the program to get there. He pointed out the work done by the NTDP’s first coaching staff, DeGregorio, former USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean and the late Jim Johannson, who was the assistant director of USA Hockey and also helped pave the way.
“Those people can never get enough credit,” Monaghan said. “I have to remind people here when I bring them on board that if Jeff Jackson is going to be here watching a game, they need to take care of him. He is the father of the program.”
The NTDP still has its critics. It also had converts, like that radio show guest panelist who criticized Leopold for leaving Minnesota high school hockey to attend the NTDP.
That man was former NHL forward Dave Snuggerud. His son, Jimmy, went to the NTDP and was a first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2022. Snuggerud said he was critical of the NTDP because he was a Minnesota high school hockey coach at the time and felt like what was being done in Minnesota needed to be protected.
Snuggerud said he reached a stage when he decided to find out more about the NTDP and after learning more about the program, he began telling more of the young players he worked with about it because he wanted them to have opportunities. Snuggerud said he respected how the NTDP had its players taking high school classes while also teaching character development.
“The last piece was the hockey development,” said Snuggerud, the co-founder of Breakaway Academy, a hockey school that has had players go to the NTDP. “They do a fantastic job-building skill work and they are more interested, and still are to this day, in developing the athletes as being highly skilled and being a good teammate.”
Jackson returned to college hockey in 2005 and has been the head coach of Notre Dame since then. Cronin is a first-time NHL head coach as he was hired by the Anaheim Ducks in 2023 to oversee a roster featuring NTDP alumni Cam Fowler, John Gibson, Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras. Mancini returned to USA Hockey and is the assistant executive director of hockey development.
Leopold, Liles and Tanabe all made it to the NHL. Leopold now helps his wife run their family business, an event center for corporate gatherings and weddings in the Twin Cities. Liles is a television studio analyst for the Colorado Avalanche, while Tanabe, whose career was cut short by a concussion, is an attorney in the Twin Cities.
While Henning didn’t play in the NHL, he is the director of professional scouting for the Vancouver Canucks, where he works with the Sedin twins.
“To wear that jersey for me and everyone else on the team, it was something to be prideful about,” Henning said. “It meant something. The program being new could have gone the other way if the Minnesota kids had stayed or the East Coast kids had stayed. It was never said out loud, but everyone understood we were lighting a torch and we had to pass it on.”
Leopold said playing in the NHL didn’t feel like a realistic option until the NTDP. He grew up in Minnesota at a time when he felt there weren’t a lot of Americans in the NHL, and the North Stars had left for Dallas. Going to the NTDP gave Leopold more than just a place to develop. It gave him a place to get exposed to experiences that let him know the NHL was possible.
“When we got there, it was the second month, Billy Guerin was in a contract holdout with the New Jersey Devils,” Leopold said. “He practiced with us for a week or two. I was like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I didn’t really follow hockey outside of Minnesota. But you look at the guy who put USA Hockey on the map. It’s him. It’s [Brett] Hull, [Chris] Chelios, [Mike] Modano and [Doug] Weight.”
Tanabe said another under-discussed aspect of the NTDP is the life experiences and structure it can provide. He said he had an appreciation for the billet families who take in players, along with the international competitions, which give teenagers who may have never left the country a chance to see what life is like elsewhere.
It’s why he said he’s forever grateful to Jackson, Mancini and Cronin for telling players to be mindful of how they represent the USA.
“We’ve heard clichés about ‘the ugly American’ or ‘the arrogant American.’ That is a lasting thing,” Tanabe said. “To this day, it still sticks with me to represent your country well and show respect for other cultures. Those things are lasting positives I learned from being at the NTDP. From how you behave at airports to how you behave at restaurants to when you are interacting with citizens from foreign nations.”