BUFFALO, N.Y. — As the 2015 U.S. Men’s National Team lined up to receive its bronze medals at the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Men’s World Championship, countless years of varying experiences helped Team USA reach that point.
Multiple players had National Hockey League experience; many took the college hockey route; some had represented Team USA on the international stage before.
But the three youngest U.S. players at the championship, all under 21 years old, were the only ones who had a particular event inked on their resumes: the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game.
Seth Jones played in the inaugural game (2012), Dylan Larkin starred in the 2013 edition, and Jack Eichel was named player of the game in 2014.
“We have so many markers within USA Hockey, whether it’s kids aspiring to get to the National Team Development Program, aspiring to get to our national festivals,” said Jim Johansson, assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey. “The All-American Prospects Game now is another target on the map for young players.”
This year’s prospects game will take place at 7 p.m. tonight at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York, with a live broadcast on NHL Network. All 42 players taking part in the game are eligible for the upcoming 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
The game originated to showcase the top draft-eligible players in the country, and the success of recent participants also highlights the rapid development players can make once they’re drafted.
For example, Jones was taken fourth overall by Nashville in the 2013 draft, then starred with the Predators all of the following season before representing Team USA at the IIHF Men’s World Championship. Larkin was taken 15th overall by the Detroit Red Wings in 2014 and went on to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year during his 2014-15 campaign with the Michigan Wolverines. Eichel was drafted second overall by the Sabres in 2015, months after he earned the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey for his performance at Boston University.
“It’s the nature of the game right now, how fast guys are progressing into the pro system,” said Johansson. “I think the part we’re proud of is that these players are physically ready to make that step. I think every year, we have players that we expect to be leaders on and off the ice, but also guys that are at a level of play that helps lift all the players around them. The Dylan Larkins, the Seth Joneses, the Jack Eichels are those type of players.”
Larkin skated with the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Red Wings’ American Hockey League affiliate, in the 2015 AHL playoffs after signing a professional contract following his college season. He is currently participating in Detroit’s training camp, and has a chance to crack the roster to begin the season at the NHL level.
Eichel appeared in the Sabres’ first game of the preseason, scoring the game-winning goal, and is expected to start the season in the Buffalo lineup.
“It’s awesome seeing those guys go through the same footsteps that we’re going through,” said James Sanchez, a participant in the 2015 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game. “Seeing them playing in the NHL, I think it’s really cool that we’re kind of doing similar things and that we can, one day, possibly be in the NHL. They set a very good path for us to follow and one day it could possibly pay off.”
Jones, Larkin and Eichel each utilized the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game as a way to showcase their skills in front of NHL scouts and general managers before getting selected in the draft the following June.
Although the event can carry pressure on its participants, Eichel said he encourages the players to be the type of player that has given them success so far.
“The most important thing would just be to enjoy the experience,” he said. “You only get to play in the prospects game once. It’s a great opportunity for them to make an impression on a lot of NHL teams. USA Hockey does a great job of attracting the top young talent in our country.”
Jones also had a word of advice for the players participating in this year’s game: “Just relax. There could be a lot of added pressure on you. You may think you might have to do too much, but just go and play your game, and I think that’ll really take care of it for the most part. The scouts, they know how you play. Don’t try to do anything that isn’t your game or you’re not used to. Just go out and be yourself.”