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Boston College Hockey and the US National Team Development Program: It's A Mixed Bag, And Bracco's Just The Latest Example

A look back at other BC recruits from the USNTDP

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It's become cliche at this point, but the mantra of "a ring on one hand and a degree in the other" typified what BC hockey aims to do, and has generally done successfully in the Jerry York era. In the stretch from 2008-2014, BC produced three national champions, six Beanpot champions, a Hobey Baker award winner, and a bucketful of NHLers, while suffering just one high profile defection to junior hockey (Kenny Ryan) and just two players (Nick Petrecki and Phil Samuelsson) departing before completing three seasons.

That trend has been rocked over the past two seasons as BC has dealt with the loss of its first one and done since 2001 in Noah Hanifin, and two straight years of being spurned for the OHL by arguably their top recruit. Last year it was Sonny Milano bouncing in August; this year it was Jeremy Bracco leaving after playing 5 games with the Eagles.

One thing Milano, Bracco and Hanifin (and Kenny Ryan) all have in common is that they are graduates of the US National Team Development program in Ann Arbor, Michigan - a hockey academy set up by USA Hockey to train the nation's most elite young hockey prospects. For those unfamiliar with the USNTDP, they operate a number of youth national teams that compete in international competitions; they also have a U-18 national team that plays a full season in the USHL, the US's top junior hockey league, largely competing against players 18 and 19 years old.

Many of the nation's top talents have been produced by the USNTDP - Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel among them, along with emerging stars like Jack Eichel and of course Hanifin. The USNTDP's goal is to make USA Hockey a global power in the sport and at that goal, it's succeeding; the USA has had its most successful run ever at the World Juniors over the past 6 or 7 years, and the Americans have racked up gold after gold at the U-18 and U-17 levels. Eventually, this success should translate into Olympic success; it's already putting more elite Americans in to the NHL.

One impact of the USNTDP that's less well known, however, is its impact on college hockey. Unarguably, it's produced some of the best college hockey players ever to lace up the skates, creating entertainment value and memories for fans of watching some truly elite players the likes of which we've never seen before (Eichel being the standout example).

But does it produce players college hockey programs rely up on to win championships? There's a case to be made that the focus on professional development by the USNTDP, while beneficial to high end careers, has created a "one and done" culture in college hockey. BU and Michigan stand out as programs that, over the past 10 years or so, have recruited at a similarly high level as BC, but with less success, and with far more flight risks. Many of those players at BU and Michigan have been USNTDP alums. Using BC as a case study, USNTDP alums have been a mixed bag.

Here's a look at USNTDP alums recruited to BC over the past 15 seasons or so, with a * for each year completed on the Heights to indicate who was a 3/4 year player and who bounced early.

Jeremy Bracco: left after 5 games with BC
Colin White
Casey Fitzgerald

Sonny Milano: left before playing a game at BC
Noah Hanifin*: left after one season
Alex Tuch*


Thatcher Demko**
Steve Santini**
Scott Savage**

Brendan Silk****

Bill Arnold****

Kenny Ryan: left without playing a game at BC

Jimmy Hayes***

Ryan Hayes: left for juniors after playing six games at BC

Nathan Gerbe***

Mike Brennan****

Adam Pineault: left for juniors after one 8-point season with BC

Pat Eaves***
Stephen Gionta****

Ryan Murphy****
David Spina****

The USNTDP has obviously produced some great BC players, with Pat Eaves, Nathan Gerbe, Jimmy Hayes and Bill Arnold standing out. Arnold and Mike Brennan were also great BC captains and leaders.

However, a few trends stand out. First off, pretty much all of BC's extreme early departures have come from the USNTDP. Interestingly, Pineault, R. Hayes, and Kenny Ryan never made the NHL. The jury is out on Milano and Bracco though obviously both are supremely talented prospects.

Secondly, there's been an increasing reliance on the program for BC's top recruits in recent seasons. The USNTDP guys have pretty much been the bulk of the high-end talent brought in. Miles Wood is an exception this year, coming from the prep ranks; same goes for Zach Sanford, an EJHL and USHL product. But a huge proportion of the team's top talent is coming from that route the last few years compared to in the years when BC was raking in class after class of future NHLer who played 3-4 seasons at the Heights.

That said, there are two things to keep in mind:

1) is that it's hard to say "you shouldn't try to recruit the very best players in the country." The USNTDP guys are obviously the nation's hottest prospects, hence why they're on that team. With BC's recent success, these players are actively coming to Jerry York and BC without the program even needing to do much selling. When you're recruiting at that high of a level, you're bound to get burnt by early departures; that's just the name of the game.

2) is that there's been a real decline in the quality of the top recruits out of the New England prep leagues, a traditional bread and butter location for top BC players. Miles Wood again stands out as the exception here. But more and more great players eschew their high school programs for academies out West, particularly the USNTDP, and it's watering down the quality of Mass. HS hockey and the New England preps. This is not good for BC in the medium or long terms. As such, it's not the pipeline of great players it once was for Jerry York. It seems as though the top college hockey players largely are either young, elite, flight-risk Americans, or older players, often Canadians seasoned in the BCHL. Neither is really a recruiting pool that BC dips in to often.

It's going to be a difficult tightrope for BC to walk. You're going to need the highest end recruits to compete with the other elite national programs, but the staff is going to need to do an outstanding job of identifying, retaining and coaching up that next tier of players who might not be first round draft picks but will be solid four year contributors. That's the only way the "degree and ring" formula will remain relevant going forward.