Jeremy Roenick and Derek Plante were fresh-faced high schoolers in the late 1980s, eyeing the National Hockey League and eager to take that next step.
On Sept. 24, with faces lined by a combined 1,813 NHL games, they’ll look to pass wisdom to the next generation of fresh-faced prospects when they step behind the benches at the fourth annual CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo, New York.
“This is a game that’s very important to 42 young, aspiring NHL players,” said Roenick, a two-time U.S. Olympian. “I started in the National Hockey League when I was 18 years old and a lot of these kids are at that age, getting ready to play in this game that’s going to change their lives. For me to be a part of their initial send-off is very important, so I’m very excited about it.”
Together, Plante and Roenick suited up for Team USA a total of 13 times. They share a combined 28 NHL seasons between them. Plante captured the Stanley Cup with the 1999 Dallas Stars and Roenick’s 513 goals and 1,216 points both rank fourth in NHL history among Americans. They’ve made themselves a part of hockey’s upper class. Now they’re ready to hand the baton to the next generation of America’s elite.
Hockey Now and Hockey Then
Roenick broke into the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1988. Plante joined the league with the Buffalo Sabres in 1993. That means both were skating in the professional ranks before their All-American Prospects Game players were even born.
Compare any aspect of today’s game to the hockey Plante and Roenick played and it’s easy to spot the differences.
“These guys don’t have to worry about getting punched by guys that simply fight their way into the league,” said Roenick, who enjoyed a 20-year NHL career before retiring in 2009. “Instead, they can use their talent and their speed and their abilities to impress people.”
Today’s USA Hockey players have certainly been impressive. In the five years since Roenick and Plante last skated in the red, white and blue, Team USA has won a silver medal at the Olympic games, added two bronze medals at the IIHF World Championship and three medals at the IIHF World Junior Championship, including gold in 2010 and 2013. In addition, there are more than 10 pieces of hardware earned by the U.S. at other international tournaments.
“I think USA Hockey has done a marvelous job creating an identity for the United States in hockey internationally,” said Roenick, who played 41 games for Team USA. “They’ve put in so many different programs and they put the right coaches in place to have created a world power in hockey. The U.S. is constantly mentioned as one of the top two or three teams at every international competition now, and that wasn’t always the case before in the early 1980s.”
That growing dominance was first established here at home. USA Hockey initiatives like the American Development Model and coaching education modules have helped develop the game’s best in a way that wasn’t being done as consistently or comprehensively in Plante’s era.
“One thing that’s been very helpful is USA Hockey putting hockey into place in non-traditional areas,” explained Plante, who coached the 2014 and 2015 U.S. Under-18 Select Team that competed at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. “They’ve made it easier for coaches in those areas, who haven’t always played a lot of hockey or maybe aren’t as familiar with the sport, to still be effective and teach the players the right thing. It’s opened hockey up to a whole new group of people, and allowed some of the game’s elite to grow and develop there. It’s been amazing to see.”
Team Plante and Team Roenick, both have some recognizable names on their rosters. Last names like Tkachuk, Bellows and McInnis dot each team like their fathers did on NHL teams before them.
“I’ve got Matthew Tkachuk on my team,” exclaimed Roenick of fellow U.S. Olympian Keith Tkachuck’s son. “I texted Keith right away. It’s pretty crazy when you start seeing kids come around to a spot that was our glory years and the time of our lives. I can’t be more excited to see Matthew in front of me on the bench.”
For Plante, it’s a mix of familiarity from playing and coaching. As a former assistant coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth, his own scouting reports on players have him eager to lead during this game.
“There are so many outstanding players on this roster,” said Plante, currently in his first year as a development coach with the Chicago Blackhawks. “We have a couple of guys that I know from my time at Duluth. A few recruits like Joey Anderson and a couple guys who did really well overseas with us. And then (Keiffer) Bellows played at Edina (Minn.), so it’s great to see him. Really, I’m excited to see all these guys play.”
Experience to Lead
Roenick wants to become more involved in USA Hockey and all of its initiatives to grow the game and develop players. Still, when he received the call to coach the prospects game, he was a bit surprised.
“What am I going to do? I’m not a coach, I’m not an Xs and Os guy,” said Roenick, who is seen most today as a studio analyst for the NHL on NBC Sports. “What I am is a motivator, and if I can do anything for these kids to propel them, I’m going to make sure that I do it. I want to make sure that I tell them that they have to seize the moment. You can’t let anyone else take it.
“It’s their first game to a storybook lifetime and career. If I can put some energy into them and make sure they are excited about the opportunity (to play in the All-American Prospects Game), then I’ve done my job.”
Plante agrees, stating that the goal in this game will be to let the players shine – and hopefully come out with a team win.
“It’s such a quick event, I’m obviously not going to over-coach them, but I will try to find a way to get them to play together and help each other out,” Plante said. “I want them to play the puck, get organized and help them look better as a group. At the same time, hopefully it helps beat JR’s team – that’s what I want to do.”
In response to who will come out on top, Roenick simply said with a sly grin, “I’ve won a few more games than Derek Plante, so we’re good.”
The CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game will be broadcast on the NHL Network beginning at 7 p.m. Eastern Time.