By Nick Barnowski –
EAST LANSING – Grant Gabriele and Brendan Warren are playing out a lifelong dream – at the age of 17.
The two grew up with hopes of playing college hockey, and now they are taking on college competition one year early as members of the U.S. National Under-18 Team.
“It’s unbelievable,” Gabriele, a Brighton native and Western Michigan commit, said after playing Michigan State at Munn Ice Arena on Jan. 9. “It’s just a great experience playing in front of this crowd and atmosphere.”
Munn is one of several buildings the U-18 team has played in over the course of its season. The team already skated at Yost Ice Arena, home of the Michigan Wolverines, back in October, as well as North Dakota’s Ralph Engelstad Arena and Minnesota’s Mariucci Arena.
Since those on the NTDP U-18 Team who are committed to play NCAA hockey are still one year away from enrolling as students, playing in college rinks against college teams is thrilling and challenging at the same time.
“It’s very exciting,” Warren, a Carleton native and University of Michigan commit, said. “You dream of playing college hockey when you grow up and now we’re playing it a year early. It’s really helping us grow as players.”
After the Michigan State game, which the NTDP lost 4-1, both Gabriele and Warren said the size and age of college players has made the matchups tough for the 17-year-olds.
As 16-year-olds, they played on the NTDP U-17 team, which mostly competed against USHL teams. With the U-18s, they compete both in the USHL and against NCAA competition. Playing against kids who may be up to six years older has forced Gabriele and Warren to work even harder before arriving at their respective college campuses.
Warren, a Compuware and Belle Tire alum, said the Spartans made it tough to get to the net, which he said could be attributed to their size.
“They’re older, they’re stronger, and they’ve had more years in the weight room,” said Warren, who has 25 points in 35 games this season. “They don’t give you much room and you’ve got to show up every shift.”
Gabriele, who played for Belle Tire, Compuware and Victory Honda, said the game is much faster when making the jump to the next level.
“It’s really quick,” Gabriele said of the college game. “You’ve got to make sure you’re really sharp because every shift, they’re competing hard and playing physical.”
Gabriele said it has helped knowing that so many kids have been where he is now and are having success.
Michigan’s Dylan Larkin, who played on the NTDP U-18 team last season, currently leads all Big Ten freshman in points, while Boston University’s Jack Eichel leads the NCAA in points. At the highest level, more than 240 former NTDP players have been drafted by NHL teams in the last 16 years.
“I’ve talked to (New Jersey Devils defenseman) Jon Merrill and (Winnipeg Jets defenseman) Jacob Trouba, and they said playing in these games really helped and is a really big step for our future,” Gabriele said.
Before officially becoming college hockey players next season, they still have their sights set on this season’s goals. Advancements in the weight room and winning a U-18 world championship are at the top of the list, but both feel playing against college competition is nothing but beneficial.
“This program is all about development and helping players play at the next level,” Warren said. “We’re learning the tough side of the game at the next level, but playing at that level now is helping us grow as players.”