J.T. Compher (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Few players at the world juniors will match the dogged work ethic and leadership of Team USA’s J.T. CompherHe is both a secret weapon and the most obvious one at Team USA’s disposal this year. University of Michigan sophomore J.T. Compher could very well have been a difference-maker for the Americans last year in Malmo, but the gritty and talented center broke his foot while blocking a shot during practice with the national squad a week before the world junior tournament. This summer, Compher hurt his hand during Team USA’s summer camp in Lake Placid. Once again, he was blocking a shot, this time in an exhibition rout of the Swedes. But – knock on wood – Compher is healthy now and will be a boon to the Americans when the holiday classic hits Canada. “He’ll bring what J.T. brings to a team every night – he brings a work ethic, he’ll do whatever you tell him to do,” said legendary Michigan coach Red Berenson. “Whatever role you put him in, he’s going to do a good job at it. He’s going to add a compete level that very few players on his team will have, and he’ll bring leadership and a responsible attitude to the team.”
A second-round selection of the Buffalo Sabres in 2013, Compher has quickly become an indispensable player for the Wolverines, who have uncharacteristically struggled the past couple of seasons. Part of that is because of players leaving early for the pros and other recruits failing to live up to expectations, but that’s not the case with the rugged Compher.He led the team in scoring as a freshman with 31 points in 35 games, and though he’s off to a slightly slower start offensively this year, he has always been a player who is more than just the sum of his points. Freshman center Dylan Larkin, the Detroit Red Wings first-rounder in 2014, played with Compher at the U.S. National Team Development Program and now slots behind him on Michigan’s depth chart. “Even going back to when I was 17 and he was 18, just watching how hard he worked and how he plays the game was great,” Larkin said. “Now I get to play against him in practice. He’s a great role model.” Compher, who has an agitating streak and regularly finishes his checks with authority, doesn’t really seem like the type of player you would want to face in practice, though. “Yeah, you’ve got to keep your head up sometimes,” Larkin said. “But he cares about his teammates.” And he loves Team USA. Compher spent two years with the NTDP in Ann Arbor before heading across town to play at Michigan, and he will surely be joined by a number of former teammates on the national squad, from power forward Hudson Fasching and phenom prospect Jack Eichel to starting goalie Thatcher Demko and defenseman Will Butcher, just to name a few. “It’s a nice thing about the national program that they keep that familiarity,” Compher said. “Whether you’re going to world juniors, world championships – and you even saw it in the Olympics – having that connection, getting that chemistry, it keeps the higher-ups familiar with some of the players who have played well in international competitions.” And when Compher has been healthy at world junior camps, he has been one of the standouts for the Americans. Now he’ll get a chance to strut his stuff on the big stage, and the fact the tournament is in Canada makes it extra fun for the Illinois native. “I grew up watching the world juniors, and you get to see it a lot more when it’s in Canada,” he said. “That’s all they talk about and it’s a huge deal for the whole country. To be able to go there, it’s going to be really exciting, and everyone has that Dec. 31 game (vs. Canada) circled right away.” Of course, his hope is that Team USA is the main story when the gold is eventually awarded. This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.