As hockey-related travel nightmares go, Team USA's weekend in Nebraska isn't much to lose sleep over.
Nick Fohr still remembers, when he was playing for the Lincoln Stars in 1997, a trip home from Fargo, N.D., when the team was caught in an ice storm and had to park the bus on Interstate 80 just a few miles from the Waverly exit — the last stop before Lincoln.
For eight hours.
The players filed out and threw snowballs at one another.
“Steve Johnson (then the Stars' coach and now a UNO assistant) lived close to Waverly, so he ran to the exit and got a ride home,” Fohr said, laughing.
Fohr, the former University of Nebraska at Omaha player and assistant who is now an assistant for the U.S. National Team Development Program's Under-18 team, has had a couple of extra days around his old haunts because of Thursday's snowstorm.
Team USA rolled into town Thursday morning after an overnight bus trip, before its exhibition game against the Mavericks that night was postponed because of the snow.
But Team USA played as scheduled Friday night against the Stars in Lincoln, and then had to return to Omaha and hang around one more day to play UNO in Saturday's rescheduled 7:07 p.m. exhibition at CenturyLink Center.
Team USA will return to its Ann Arbor, Mich., base after the game.
“It could have been a lot worse,” said Fohr, who considers being stranded in Vienna, Austria, for 24 hours because of a mechanical problem on a plane — after a summer international tournament — as his worst hockey travel experience.
“Fortunately our hotel had the availability. We had to move a few meals around, but it was a pretty easy transition.”
USA Hockey operates two developmental teams: the Under-18s and the Under-17s.
While both teams play international age-group tournaments and as a combined entry in the United States Hockey League, the U-18 team plays a number of college programs in exhibitions, as well. The U-17 team plays the majority of the USHL games.
The U-18 team is 9-5 against USHL competition and typically holds its own, if not better, against Division I teams such as UNO.
Playing in the program is a two-year commitment.
Each group of U-17 players is selected after an invitation-only tryout camp in March. Players live with billet families, attend a local high school, practice for two hours a day, and spend more time lifting weights or on other hockey-specific activities until dinner.
Motivation is never an issue with the players, Fohr said. In fact, moderation is often what the staff has to preach, so that players don't wear themselves down.
And, like an affiliated minor-league baseball team, winning isn't as important as developing and learning to play the game the proper way.
The goal for the 14-year-old program is to make the players better, while at the same time enhancing U.S. chances of winning international competitions.
Sixty former NTDP players skated in the NHL last season.
Though Team USA players are up to seven years younger than some of their college opponents, Fohr said much of the gap in physical maturation is bridged over time.
“Some of them come in (to the program) at 16 years old,” Fohr said. “At the start of their first year (U-17), they get pushed around pretty badly by the USHL teams, but by the end of the year they've caught up.
“And now (U-18) we push around most of the USHL teams. Against Division I teams, there are two, three or four kids on every team who are tough for us to handle strength wise, but after that it's pretty even.”
Forward J.T. Compher (No. 20), injured forward Michael McCarron (31), wing Hudson Fasching (42) and defensemen Steven Santini (47) and Keaton Thompson (51) are Team USA's most highly rated prospects, according to NHL Central Scouting's North American rankings.
So keep an eye out during Saturday's exhibition game, as many Team USA players will soon be skating in high-profile locations. Stefan Matteau jumped from last year's U-18 team to the NHL this season.
Compher is a Michigan commitment, McCarron has committed to Western Michigan, Fasching to Minnesota, Santini to Boston College and Thompson to North Dakota.
The impressive collection of talent doesn't stop there.
Forward Tyler Kelleher, the team's leading point producer, is headed to New Hampshire. Forwards Evan Allen and Tyler Motte are scheduled to join Compher at Michigan. Anthony Louis is headed to Miami (Ohio). Goalie Thatcher Demko is going to Boston College.
While Michigan is having a down season, Minnesota, Miami, Boston College, New Hampshire and North Dakota currently occupy Nos. 2 through 6 in the USCHO.com national ratings. Western Michigan is No. 8.
Kelleher and Louis are smaller players, but Fohr said the rest of the roster might surprise you.
“If you saw us in a restaurant, you'd say there's no way those kids are 17,” Fohr said. “They're big, strong men. A lot of them will go on to college next year and be in the top six forwards and be major, major cogs for their teams.”
'Skate with the Mavs'
UNO will hold its annual “Skate with the Mavs” event Sunday, from 1 through 3 p.m., at CenturyLink Center.
Children ages 12 and under will have an opportunity to skate with the UNO hockey team and get the players' autographs. They also will receive a voucher good for a ticket to see the Mavericks play Wisconsin on March 1 at 6:37 p.m.
Registration for the event is $10 for one of four half-hour segments.
Skates will be made available, but it is suggested that participants provide their own skates. Children will not be allowed on the ice without skates.
All registrations must be made before Sunday. Call the UNO athletic ticket office at 402-554-MAVS or go to the hockey section of OmahasTeam.com to register.
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