Jordan Greenway and Charlie McAvoy
With executive director Dave Ogrean retiring, the organization needs a replacement. And whomever that is, they'll have a number of areas to keep an eye on
Dave Ogrean, the executive director of USA Hockey, announced his retirement on Thursday. If you don't the know the name, you'll certainly recognize his work. During Ogrean's tenure with the organization, he helped start up the National Team Development Program (NTDP), which revolutionized high-end hockey in the U.S. by hot-housing the best under-17 and under-18 boys in the nation. Alumni of the NTDP include Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel – but the full list of NHLers is really long. Ogrean was also on the clock when USA Hockey founded the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, which goes to the top player in NCAA women's hockey. Winners have included Angela Ruggiero, Julie Chu and Amanda Kessel. And since his first stint with the organization began in 1993 (he took a six-year break between 1999 and 2005), Ogrean has seen the number of players in the country double, with more than 542,000 Americans registered at all ages this year.
USA Hockey is now looking for a replacement for Ogrean and obviously the man has cast a long shadow. The Americans just won gold at the world juniors and with the exception of the disastrous World Cup of Hockey, they've been doing quite well internationally on both the men's and women's sides for years now (some folks gripe that the U.S. is bias against kids who play major junior, but keep in mind that Troy Terry might not have been on the world junior squad if Alex DeBrincat and Logan Brown were there – so be careful what you wish for). But that doesn't mean that Ogrean's replacement can just kick back and watch the medals roll in. There's always ways to improve, so here are some suggestions for USA Hockey's next executive director.
Target Nevada: Grassroots hockey has made great in-roads in "non-traditional" states, especially once NHL franchises have moved in. Florida and Texas are both on par with snowy Colorado now, for example, with more than 13,000 players in each state. But Nevada, home to the NHL's newest expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, is pretty fallow to start off with. There are just 1,305 registered players in the state (all numbers are from USA Hockey's 2015-16 report) and that's one of the lowest totals in the nation. Thanks to the buzz that will surround the Golden Knights in the franchise's first couple years, USA Hockey has a chance to kick-start that territory. And imagine if Las Vegas native Jason Zucker makes his way from the Minnesota Wild to the Knights – it's almost too perfect, isn't it?
Keep the NTDP humming: This may prove to be a down year for the NTDP when it comes to the draft. Based on my forecasts, we may only see one or two players (or none) from the program go in the first round of the NHL draft in Chicago. In 2016, you had nine alumni, including Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk and Clayton Keller, all in the top-10. For whatever reason, this year's top American prospects have been plying their trades elsewhere, from Minnesota high school (Casey Mittelstadt and Ryan Poehling, the latter now an NCAA freshman) to major junior (Kailer Yamamoto and Jaret Anderson-Dolan in Spokane, Sasha Chmelevski in Ottawa. Current NTDPer Grant Mismash has a shot at the first round, as does alumni goalie Jake Oettinger, now at Boston University. But it's a weird year. And perhaps it's just an aberration, because the under-17s are stocked with big names like Oliver Wahlstrom, Bode Wilde and Jake Wise (under-18 Quinn Hughes is also a late birthday, so he won't be up until 2018, to be fair), but it pays to be vigilant.
Use the world juniors to grow the game: Buffalo will host the WJC next year, just as the hockey-mad town did the last time America had the hosting rights in 2011. And hey; Buffalo did a fantastic job last time and will probably do so again in 2018. But other cities need to benefit from having the tournament in town. Hosting rights don't come up again until 2022, so the new executive director has some time on this one, but USA Hockey should seek out new hosting markets and try hosting more often. St. Louis and Tampa Bay both bid unsuccessfully for 2018 and would be great options for the future. I'd also love to see a Portland-Seattle combination, especially if the NHL expands/moves to Seattle in the future.
Don't forget the girls: And yes, I literally mean girls, as in eight years old and under. USA Hockey has been focusing on boys and girls in that cohort already, but it's an important one on the girls side, particularly as women's hockey fights to maintain a paying pro league in the NWHL. Girls six and under represented the largest year-over-year growth demographic in American hockey, with a 13.3 percent jump from 2014-15. That meant about 9,700 girls of that age signed up to play, up from about 8,550. Not a lot, but clearly an improvement. The second-fastest growing group was girls aged seven and eight – an increase of nine percent year over year. More girls playing the game bodes well for the NWHL, who can provide role models for the kids, who in turn can buy the tickets that keep their heroes employed. It's a virtuous cycle and one USA Hockey should keep perpetuating.
Keep an eye on Canada: Thanks to the global world we live in and the tendency for NHLers to produce offspring who are really good at hockey, we're seeing more and more young dual citizens in the game. But which country will these phenoms play for internationally? It's becoming a big battleground, with the recent Youth Olympic Games locking in players for their IIHF futures. USA Hockey now has Wahlstrom, Adam Samuelsson, Mattias Samuelsson and Jack DeBoer, but couldn't convince Wilde to go. Elsewhere, they won Logan Brown from Canada, but lost Jakob Chychrun and are in the process of losing Cal Foote. This one's only gonna get more competitive as time goes on.
For the most part, these issues are all a matter of upkeep, rather than major surgery. USA Hockey made great strides under Ogrean and the goal of his successor should be to keep that momentum going.