Blessed with talent and physical maturity, the kids who skated in the All-American Prospects Game on Saturday night make hockey look easy. But there's nothing simple about earning the right to pull on a Team USA sweater.
That's why it means so much to the lucky ones who can.
"Wearing that jersey is just an honor," forward J.T. Compher said in First Niagara Center. "It's amazing just to put it on in national competition. It's so much fun. It's something that I try not to take for granted."
USA Hockey's famed National Development Team Program (NDTP) makes sure its players know the country's hockey history. The organization also provides the blueprint for becoming part of that lore.
"They run a tight ship over there," said forward Tyler Motte, one of 16 players who came to Buffalo from national team headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich. "The school, the rink, they make sure you get everything done. Everything is kind of to a T over there, a lot of details, but they do it right."
Founded in 1996, the NDTP has seen 211 of its players drafted by the NHL, and 60 played in the league last year. The kids who took part in Team McClanahan's 5-2 victory over Team Housley in front of an announced crowd of 5,519 hope they showed they can add to the numbers.
"You can see with the development program how that's helped in developing kids," said Phil Housley, one of the coaches for Saturday's inaugural event. "It started in '96, and it produced a lot of first-rounders (45). Not maybe the overall depth in the draft, but certainly we're producing a lot of higher-impact players."
A look at the daily schedule explains why. The players go to public high schools in Ann Arbor until 1:30 p.m. That's followed by a two-hour practice. It's off the weight room after that. USA Hockey also conducts life skills classes for the prospects.
Then, every weekend, it's time for games. The under-18 team competes in the United States Hockey League, the country's premier junior league.
"It was a good experience being able to see what they do there," said Team Housley goaltender Hunter Miska, who is in his second season with the NDTP. "The workout was unreal. That was my biggest part probably. I came in there at 146 pounds and I left at 171, so it was great."
The results in international competition have been as tangible as Miska's weight gain. USA Hockey has claimed seven gold medals, including the last four, at the under-18 world championships since 2002. The under-20 world junior championship team has won gold and bronze the past two years, the first time the United States has earned back-to-back medals in the 35-year history of the tournament.
"With all the kids from all 50 states playing hockey, it's an honor just to be mentioned in the top 23 (on the U.S. under-18 team) and the 40 here in this game," Motte said.
The pride of being part of USA Hockey, and by extension the All-American Prospects Game, was evident in every conversation with the players. They're honored to follow in the footsteps of Americans such as Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, Nick Foligno and Jordan Leopold.
"There's so much to look up to," Compher said. "It just gives you so much hope to know that it's been done, and if you put in the work that you can do it."
Housley, who represented the United States in 11 international competitions, is thrilled to hear the next generation values the red, white and blue as much as he did.
"That's great to hear that the kids are honored to be a part of this hockey game," Housley said. "Anytime you get to represent your country it's a great honor, whether you're a player or a coach."