When Kenny Rausch watches the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team take the ice at Sochi in February, he’ll see a lot of familiar names on the backs of those Team USA jerseys.
Rausch, manager of youth hockey for USA Hockey, has been around the organization’s Player Development Camps in a variety of capacities since 1996, so for the past 17 years he’s seen the best young players in the nation climb through the age-group ranks en route to the college game, NHL, U.S. national teams or the Olympic Winter Games.
But one thing he likes to remind people is that not every youth player matures at the same speed. The sure-fire superstar at 15 might not be so hot by the time he has his 21st birthday, while his less-celebrated teenage teammate may blossom into NHL and national-team stardom.
So while this year’s Youth Select Camps will select 16- and 17-year-olds to go off to compete internationally, their selection doesn’t necessarily lock in their futures as players. These camps are just the next steps in their hockey journeys. They’re important and valuable for their development — they get exposure to other players, new coaches, instruction and college and national-team programs — but not defining.
“Just because you’re not the best at 17 doesn’t mean you’re not going to be the best at 25,” Rausch said. “I myself coached two of those teams, with ’86 and ’87 birth years, and you know we left a couple kids who are playing in the NHL off those teams.”
He recalls that Seth Jones — one of the top young players in the U.S. and the No. 4 overall pack in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft — wasn’t even the top defenseman on his team as a 14-year-old. And when Rausch was coaching that national team of kids born in 1987, they passed over Justin Abdelkader, who would go on to be the Most Outstanding Player in the Frozen Four for Michigan State’s national championship team and now plays for the Detroit Red Wings.
“That’s another thing you want kids to get out of this week,” said Rausch before the start of the Youth Select 17 camp for boys just outside Buffalo, N.Y., on June 27. “For the Select 16 or Select 17 team, you may not make that team, but you may go on to play in the Olympics still.”
USA Hockey will hold eight Player Development Camps this year, three for boys, four for girls and one for sled hockey.
Camps for boys will all be held outside Buffalo, N.Y., and began with the Youth Select 17 camp June 27-July 3. Others are Youth Select 16 (July 7-13) and Youth Select 15 (July 14-20). Camps for girls, at St. Cloud, Minn., will begin with the Select 16s and 17s, both running from July 10-16. The Select 14s and 15s also will run concurrently, July 19-25. The sled hockey camp outside Buffalo, N.Y., will be held July 13-18.
The camps are designed to help develop the talents and skills of the best young players in the nation. Over the course of a week, players will take part in practices, games, presentations and, at some, video sessions.
For the most part, players are sent to the camps by their districts, through tryouts or an at-large selection process. They receive instruction from a variety of coaches from USA Hockey, the professional minor leagues or NHL, college and junior programs and top prep schools.
Rausch, too, will continue to coach, this year instructing the Youth Select 17 group. He’ll also oversee the Youth Select 16s and be involved in the Youth Select 15 camp. In total, he’ll spend about 20 days at the three age-group camps near Buffalo.
One of the best features of the camps is the chance for players from different regions to play with and against one another while also getting instruction from top-level coaches.
“We mix them,” Rausch said of the players. “Way back when, probably going back 10 years, we had teams by district. Now we split kids up so there will be a Massachusetts kid with a Minnesota kid, and typically each team has a kid from every district. …
“We’re trying to expose players to some of the best coaches in America and we’re also trying to expose our coaches to other good coaches in America to share ideas,” he added.
One change that’s occurred has been the rise in talented players from the West, Southwest and South now participating in the Development Camps. It’s the outgrowth of more rinks and youth leagues in those areas and what Rausch calls the “Gretzky effect” of Wayne Gretzky going to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 and sparking an interest in hockey in areas where it was lukewarm.
“I really don’t like to use the term ‘non-traditional markets’ anymore because there really aren’t any,” Rausch said. “I mean they are in a sense in that 20 years ago they weren’t, but kids are coming out of everywhere now, and it’s not a surprise when you see some of our best players coming out of Los Angeles or St. Louis, or even a Florida kid here or there. It’s grown exponentially.”
Aside from working with the players to improve their skills, Rausch said the camps provide some other benefits, including the relationships players develop with other players, coaches and USA Hockey administrators.
“Especially for me coaching at the 17s, the interaction with the kids is huge and the relationships that you build are unbelievable,” he said.
He stays in contact with many, and they can contact him — or other coaches — for future advice about college programs and national team programs.
As the years go by, he enjoys hearing from them, answering their questions and watching their career develop.
“It’s always fun to see some of those success stories,” he said.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.