BOSTON -- The road toward a national championship game began more than two years ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Not at the University of Michigan.
But close.Jack Eichel, who is the NCAA scoring leader, was on the ice at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube for the first time in August 2012. Brandon Fortunato and John MacLeod were right there with him. Gage Ausmus and Keaton Thompson had already been there a year. Matt Grzelcyk had put in two years and headed for Boston University.
They were all part of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, a residency program that has the nation’s best high school-aged hockey prospects playing hockey by night and attending Pioneer High School across the street from Michigan Stadium during the day.
Thursday night in the Frozen Four semifinals at TD Garden, it was a virtual alumni gathering as Eichel scored two goals in Boston University’s 5-3 win against North Dakota. The victory put BU in Saturday night’s title game against Providence College.
If Eichel turned around during his shift, he’d see defensemen Grzelcyk, a 2012 NTDP graduate, and MacLeod, a 2012-13 and 2013-14 NTDP classmate. If he looked straight ahead, he’d see North Dakota’s Ausmus and Thompson, a pair of sophomore defensemen who were in the NTDP class one year ahead of Eichel.
“Great guys,” Eichel said of Ausmus and Thompson. “I really enjoyed spending time with them, getting to know them.”
Nine NTDP graduates played in Thursday’s game, including six for BU. And there is little coincidence why the nation’s top high school hockey players wind up in the NCAA national title game not long after they leave Ann Arbor, where they live with host families and play for the U.S. national junior teams.
“It’s really special. The training is unbelievable,” said Fortunato, who had two blocks in Thursday’s win. “The off-ice training, the demands, it’s really tough. But it proves you. Practicing with the 20 best guys in the country … it was a great experience.”
“That’s a great program. We’ve always had a lot of players from there,” said BU coach David Quinn. “We’re very fortunate we have the ability to get those guys.”
The Terriers aren’t alone in picking players from the national program. North Dakota had three NTDP graduates in its lineup Thursday: Thompson, Ausmus and Nick Mattson, all defensemen and all NHL amateur draft choices.
“You can go down the rosters in college hockey and find a lot of guys that were at the NTDP,” Eichel said. “It speaks to volumes about the type of players and people they produce there”
Quinn knows of the talent zipping around the ice in Ann Arbor because he is a former coach on the NTDP campus and was an assistant coach for the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams at four world championships. Four BU freshmen were at the NTDP: Eichel, Macleod, Fortunato and Nikolas Olsson. Add in juniors Grzelcyk and Matt Lane.
“Those guys are usually well schooled in college hockey by the time they get to us because they play 15 to 20 [games] against colleges while they’re there,” Quinn said. “They do a great job coaching them and training them. They teach them how to be men. It’s a lot of fun watching these kids continue to grow when they get to this level.”
Playing together for two years before they arrive on a college campus also builds a bond that may never be broken. Getting four players from the same NTDP class is like getting four of the nation’s best recruits from the same high school.
“It creates a special bond right when you get here on campus, especially for us freshmen,” MacLeod said. “Me, Jack [Eichel] and Brandon [Fortunato], we came in and Matt Lane, Matt Grzelcyk, they opened up just like everyone else. You kind of have an instant connection with guys that have gone through the program like you did.”
“It was a great two years,” Fortunato said. “It’s really special. The guys you meet there, you create a bond with those guys that last a lifetime. We still keep in touch to this day.”
And that included the finish to Thursday’s often intense game between five-time national champion BU and seven-time champ North Dakota. The game wasn’t decided until Eichel sent a puck sliding into an empty net in the final minute for BU’s fifth goal. Minutes later, the NTDP and Ann Arbor Pioneer High School graduates were greeting each other again.
“It’s a tough loss for them,” MacLeod said, “but you get a chance to say hello after the game and good luck. Just a little pat on the back.”