This Thursday-Saturday I was provided the opportunity to intern with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP). The NTDP is USA Hockey’s performance school, where two teams, U17 and U18 are selected to be a part of this World Class program.

These young players are America’s best of the best. The NTDP enters its 20th year and its success both in international competition and player development is impressive. Players like Patrick Kane, Jack Johnson, Phil Kessel, Ryan Kesler and so many more have each spent two years honing their skills at this school for America’s prodigies of hockey. The 22-25 players (per team) who are brought into the NTDP as 16 years olds leave their homes and move to Plymouth, MI where they are committed to a two year development process that includes the best coaching, training, nutrition and formal education available.

Each player I was with this weekend is an NCAA Division 1 commit and nearly all will be a 1st or 2nd round NHL draft choice. The U17 team plays within the USHL T1 Junior League and against international competition. The U18 plays against USHL teams, top NCAA D3 and mostly against top NCAA D1 teams. In both cases each team is 1-3 years younger than the teams they compete against. They are boys playing against men, but their skill and compete level is so high that both teams do well despite the obvious physical short-comings. When the U17 and U18 teams do compete against thier own age on the international stage, their records speak for themselves, one world championship after another. Very impressive.

So over three days myself and my Grandville varsity Assistant Coach, Don Underwood were given full access with the NTDP, with the opportunity to be mentored and take part in every aspect of the NTDP process. We spent a couple hours each day practice planning, in video review, pre-game prep., in-game analysis, off ice conditioning, on and on. Throughout the whole process the opportunity to interject, ask questions and really be a part of the “NTDP way” was in my opinion the most enjoyable.

Some critical take-aways from our time with the NTDP:

Individual player development is still #1.

Even at this level, developing the skill of each player is the most critical role in developing a World Class team. These coaches are faced with the same challenges each of our coaches face. Repeatedly, while spending most of Friday with U17 HC Danton Cole and his staff we found it amusing that despite the high level of play, Coach Cole’s challenges are our challenges, just bigger and and more critical.

Practice, practice, practice!

Over a 10 month schedule these players will have 135 practices (minimal) and play a total of 40-50 games, no more. In other words, development is fueled more by proper practice and games are kept to around a 3:1 ratio, practice to games. Practice construction is based around small games, situational play and positional skill development. There was very little “system” work, or flow drills. Nearly every drill, situation or game is based upon competition, reducing time and space and fostering players who can read and react instantly. Hockey is played best when players can think for themselves and that happens when players can learn from their experiences within an environment created for learning w/ little ramifications for failure. That environment is small area games.

Playing time: All team members play at the NTDP.

The U17 team, plays all its players on PP (power play) and PK (penalty kill), except when they enter international competition and only at that time do they narrow players time to either PP or PK, but ALL play. If the best the USA can produce, where the ramifications for a loss are on the international level, why can’t all youth coaches, at every age level and with every sport have a better perspective on playing time?

Of course, we came away with additional drills and games, but the big take away is what this coach and staff have said for years and years…the best coaches and players are focused on skill development and fostering an instinctive and competitive play environment during practices, which translates to a player’s success years down the road.


JoelBreazealeJoel Breazeale serves as the part-time Co-Hockey Director at Georgetown Ice Center. Joel is responsible for setting-up the learn to play, learn to skate, cross ice programs, as well as coordinating coaches for these levels. Joel works in cooperation with the GVAHA VP to coordinate both house and travel GVAHA teams. He also provides opportunities for players to work on skills and development.

Joel currently serves as the Dean of Students at Grandville High School and Varsity Hockey Coach.