Friday, June 22, 2007

Patrick Cullen almost certainly won’t be selected tonight during the first round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, and there is a chance he won’t be among the names called tomorrow in rounds two through seven.

Regardless of his fate this weekend, Cullen represents a significant step forward for youth hockey in this area. He led the Washington Junior Nationals of the Atlantic Junior Hockey League in scoring and led Gonzaga to a third straight Maryland Scholastic Hockey League title.

He also became the first player from this region to earn a Division I scholarship after remaining here for his entire youth career. Next season he likely will play for the Indiana Ice after being the fourth pick in the 2007 U.S. Hockey League Entry Draft, then will move on to college hockey with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute the following year.

“It gives guys a lot of hope,” said Mark Tinordi, who played for the Washington Capitals from 1994 to 1999 and is now the coach of the Junior Nationals. “Patrick is the first kid to get a D-I scholarship while staying in Washington. We’ve had other kids earn them after going and playing in other places, but it shows you can stay here and finish high school.”

There are more hockey players coming from nontraditional places in this country, and the Washington area is one of them. Dallas Stars center Jeff Halpern is an established NHL player from this area, and there could be more on the way.

Two players, Steve Werner and Luke Lynes, grew up in the D.C. area and played with the Washington Little Capitals and Junior Capitals, which are teams in younger divisions of organized youth hockey. Both are recent Caps draft picks and in the system.

One of Cullen’s former teammates at Gonzaga, Michael Clemente, was one of two goalies selected before this season to join the U.S. National Team Development Program’s under-17 squad in Ann Arbor, Mich.

“It’s a real big deal,” Tinordi said. “We had another kid who almost made it. He was one of the last cuts. We’ve also had some kids drafted by the USHL.”

Clemente will be draft eligible next June, and should he produce with the U-18 team, he could become the first player to develop in this area and go on to be a high NHL draft pick.

“He’s a solid goaltender,” said Scott Monaghan, the director of hockey operations for the USNTDP. “He is our second Maryland kid [Werner was the first]. He’s a very solid all-around kid. He’s another example of a kid from a nontraditional area that is becoming more traditional.”

Tinordi said competition is still a struggle for players from this area for two reasons. The players are spread out across a large area, as the Little Capitals, Junior Capitals and Junior Nationals draw students from Virginia, the District and Maryland. It is also tough for the players to be noticed by scouts from places like the USNTDP and the USHL.

One way is to be selected to play in national camps at which players from the around the country face each other. Four players from the Junior Nationals were picked to play in the USA Hockey Select 17 Festival later this summer. They will compete against some of the top U-17 players in the nation.

Clemente’s play at these types of camps played a large role in him earning a spot in Ann Arbor.

“He”s always been a really good goalie. He’s always been big and challenges shooters,” Tinordi said. “He was also lucky. During his year in Junior B he played really well, and that is when those guys [at the program] really pay attention and notice kids.

“[The festivals are] probably tough because you go there for a week and there are two games going on at a time and you can’t have a bad game. You’ve got to play really well and can’t have a bad day because you’re just some kid from Maryland or Virginia. It is not like they’ve been seen for two or three years.”

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