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“Early on everyone is homesick, and it is all brand new,” said vanRiemsdyk, who along with Kane is an USNTDP alumni. “You’re training five days a week and getting stronger, but you’re constantly tired. You just keep pushing through, and there is a point probably in November where it all starts to become part of your routine and it ends up being the best thing for you.”

During the second year in the program, players are a part of the U-18 national team. They play between 20 and 25 games against Division I and top Division III college programs. They also play in some NAHL games and have more success, even if the players are still older.

There are also more international tournaments, including the U-18 world championships, and for a select few like Kane and vanRiemsdyk, the U-20 world junior championships.

“Throughout the two years there is a heavy focus on power skating and developing their stride on the ice,” Monaghan said. “Off the ice there is a lot of power lifting and isometrics. There is a lot of focus on proper stretching and conditioning. There is also a focus on eating properly and nutrition.”

Another avenue for junior hockey players is the U.S. Hockey League, which was conceived in the late 1970s but only recently became a strong option for players to develop. The USHL is a 12-team league with franchises throughout the Midwest that play 60-game regular-season schedules.

The USHL renaissance started five years ago when USA Hockey classified the league as the only Tier I Junior A League in the country. One reason the USHL can compete with Tier I Junior A hockey in Canada is because players on USHL teams keep their college eligibility, while those who play in the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League do not.

“It is a very good league,” said Ross Mahoney, the Caps’ director of amateur scouting. “They’ve got some great facilities. The kids are coming from all over the place. There is good coaching. The league has really improved.”

There were 23 players from the USHL drafted in 2005, including Caps first-rounder Joe Finley. This year four USHL players are in the NHL Central Scouting department’s top 30 North American skaters and two more in the top 60. The league is considering expansion outside the Midwest.

“The league has gotten younger, and the players have gotten better,” USHL president Gino Gasparini said. “We are a fan-driven league. We average close to 3,000 fans per game [2,921 in 2006-07]. We’re a league that is in the business of development, but we’re also a business. It is an amateur league, but it is very much like a professional league from a business sense.”

What lies ahead

The question remains: Can the phenomenon of more participation and better talent help the NHL in the United States?

“It’s not that American fans can’t identify with the great players from Canada or Europe. Anyone can watch a guy like [Alex] Ovechkin and appreciate him,” Monaghan said. “[But] I think it would be help the average American sports fan to have more quality American players to identify with.”

NHL expansion to new markets in the Southeast and Southwest has helped stimulate some of the growth in youth hockey, but how does that translate to more Americans tuning in? New Hampshire’s Borek and the USHL’s Gasparini both think having more people identify with these players at a younger stage could help.

“A guy who might be our most famous athlete is [Buffalo Sabres forward] Thomas Vanek, and he played in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for three years,” Gasparini said. “I think the [NHL] Center Ice people quadrupled their sales in Sioux Falls just because of him. That’s commonplace in our league when our fans watch these kids play.”

Added Borek: “I don’t think the NHL has taken advantage of what the college game could do for them. Erik Johnson is a good example. When people in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, turn on a St. Louis Blues game next year, it will be because of the Gopher connection. It won”t be because of any NHL connection.

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