As the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game came to the final whistle Thursday night, one thing became evident: elite hockey talent in the United States truly does come from coast to coast.
When the NHL began expanding to non-traditional Sun Belt markets, one of their purposes was to expand the growth of hockey for both fans and prospective young players. While the success of this in Arizona was witnessed in Auston Matthews, who was drafted first overall and went on to win the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year, it was also evident in this year’s draft-eligible invitees.
In total, 17 different states were represented, just one shy of last year’s record of 18 states represented. This year’s leading goal scorer, Ryan Savage, claims Scottsdale, Arizona, after his father, Brian, joined the Phoenix Coyotes, while Brady Tkachuk, the 2017 AAPG Player of the Game, honed his craft in St. Louis, Missouri, as he watched his father, Keith Tkachuk, skate for the St. Louis Blues.
“Overall it was an awesome experience,” said Tkachuk. “It was great to spend some time in Buffalo with some old friends from the NTDP and have the opportunity to meet and play with new players as well.”
Brian Leetch, who was the winning coach by a 6-5 score over Team Chelios, said, "For the last three to seven years, you see the draft and the development of the junior national team, you look at where they were raised — Florida, California, Arizona. That's a credit to USA Hockey, their belief in the grass roots, pouring money into that development and identifying players for showcases, getting them into better competition."
Ryan was actually born in Montreal where Brian started his career. However, the younger Savage was just six months old when the family moved to Arizona.
"I got my citizenship because I wanted to play in the U.S. because I lived here all my life."
Despite his birthplace and where his father grew up, make no mistake where Ryan's allegiance is.
"I love the U.S.,” Savage said. “I love representing the U.S. It's a huge honor every time you get to represent your country. Not many guys get to do this."
Ryan has witnessed the growth of hockey in Arizona from watching Matthews grow through the system to the popularity of the sport today.
"I got to see when Matthews was playing in Arizona and then watching him go through the program, get drafted and in the NHL,” said Savage. “It's growing a lot. I've seen a bunch of rinks going up. A lot more players are starting to play it because they are surrounded by it. There's a lot of good guys coming out of Arizona right now."
In the AAPG, Savage, who is committed to Miami University next season, had the advantage of playing with the Missouri product, Tkachuk. Currently a forward with Boston University, Tkachuk tallied the game-winning goal and an assist to earn player of the game honors and bragging rights over his brother, Matthew, who scored a pair of goals and an assist when he skated in the 2015 AAPG.
Savage described his game succinctly, "I try to shoot the puck as much as I can and try to make plays."
Which is exactly what he did on the two goals after being fed by perfect passes, the first from Slava Demin (committed to Denver University) and the second from Jack Randl (who had a game-high three points on a goal and two assists, and is committed to the University of Michigan).
Savage gets his due respect from the other players. Quinn Hughes, who's already at Michigan, said, "He's always a great player. He's got a good shot. Hopefully, he has a good year."
The Team Leetch goaltender, Jonathan Mor, had an opposite — and unique — experience. His goalie teammate on the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 Team, Drew DeRidder, was playing for Team Chelios, and both started the game.
"It's weird to look down the ice and see your teammate," Mor said. "But you adjust to it. It was fun to play against him, fun to compete against him, and fun to get back to practice with him tomorrow."
The goalies certainly had to face a lot of firepower. Both starters let in two goals apiece before they were switched out for the other netminders.
Mor said, "It was an honor to be here. Everyone is good. A little nerve wracking, but a lot of fun."
Mor faced the only power play of the game and even stopped a two-on-none.
"I was just reading the play," he said of that double breakaway. "I tried to take away the bottom part of the net, and they got low, pushed the puck to the backhand, so I just pushed along with them, and they shot it right into me."
Mor plans on attending college, but has not yet decided where. DeRidder has already decided on Michigan State University.
Forward Oliver Wahlstrom also had the experience of playing with fellow U18 teammates in Joel Farabee and Jonathan Gruden (who will join Mor at Miami).
Farabee, who got an assist, was the only player from the same state as the game. He hails from Cicero, about 2-1/2 hours eastward on the New York State Thruway, near Syracuse. Farabee is another player heading to BU next year.
Wahlstrom scored the second goal for Team Chelios to tie the game at two apiece, completing a perfectly executed give-and-go with Farabee. Wahlstrom will also be playing in Beantown, but for Harvard University.
The AAPG continues to showcase young talent, and the NHL's expansion continues to grow youth hockey throughout America. The products of those two purposes got to enjoy that success in Buffalo.
"The kids had a blast, even from the get go," Chris Chelios said. "It was a ton of fun."
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.