In MiHockey’s MiStory feature, we let hockey people tell their own stories with their own words. Rochester Hills native Johnny Gruden grew up dreaming of playing for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program as he watched his dad, John, work as an assistant coach for the NTDP. In the spring of 2016, Gruden earned a spot with the NTDP, and now, he’s building a foundation for his own hockey career with some of the best players in his age group. Gruden describes his journey to the NTDP and what it’s like to represent the Red, White and Blue in our latest MiStory feature.
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By Johnny Gruden –
It’s a grind, for sure.
Playing for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
It’s also been a dream of mine since I was little.
Sure, it’s what most young hockey players say. If you grow up playing high-level hockey and you’re chasing your dream of playing pro hockey, you want to play for the NTDP.
I grew up at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, however. I wasn’t playing; I was watching. My dad was an assistant coach for the NTDP for five years, which meant that I spent a lot of time watching the great players that have come through the program. It made me want to be a part of it more and more. Ever since he started coaching there, it was my dream to one day play for the NTDP.
We went to the majority of the NTDP home games while my dad was coaching – if I didn’t have my own game. I loved watching the high pace of the game. I also loved the opportunities I would have to interact with the NTDP guys.
Going into his second year with the NTDP, Dylan Larkin was working as one of the instructors at the NTDP summer youth camps with my dad. My dad had me skating in the camps, and he would drive me and Dylan to the rink together. We would go there early so that Dylan could work out beforehand, and just seeing him working so hard in the gym was motivating and fun to see. It give me an idea of how hard I would have to work to one day have a chance at living out my own dreams.
When I went to the USA Hockey Select 15 Camp in Buffalo, that’s when I realized that playing for the NTDP could be a realistic opportunity. Then when USA Hockey picked me for the Youth Olympics in 2016, I realized another massive opportunity was in front of me, and I tried to make the most of it.
That was awesome, by the way. Winning gold in Norway with a bunch of guys – some of whom were friends since we were little kids, others who would eventually be my teammates at NTDP – was one of the best experiences of my life.
The last step, after Select Camp and the Youth Olympics, was performing at the Top 40 camp in Plymouth – the final tryout for NTDP. That was nerve-wracking. Any hockey player growing up in Metro Detroit is familiar with USA Hockey Arena (formerly Compuware Arena) because we all end up playing games there. Playing in front of the NTDP coaching staff, that was something else entirely.
I’ll never forget that moment when I found out I had made the team. I was so relieved and happy. My mom and I had to wait in a conference room at the Holiday Inn by the rink for four hours to have a meeting with Mr. Monaghan and Ryan Hardy to see if I had made it. When they told me the good news, honestly, I was just speechless. I knew the hard work was just beginning.
When I called to tell my dad – he coaches the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs now – he was really happy for me. He also told me to be ready to work, because the NTDP will push you harder than you will ever be pushed in your life.
He was right. Like I said at the start of this, playing for the NTDP – living the NTDP lifestyle – is a grind. We go to school in the morning like we’re regular high school students, but then we get to the rink in the afternoon and start working out and skating. When you’re skating with some of the best players in the country, no practices are easy. After that, we have study hall, too; we have to keep our grades up while maintaining a busy schedule.
Being part of the NTDP means learning time management. We miss a lot of school for road trips and tournaments. Without Mrs. Vollmers, our academic advisor, I don’t know how we would keep up with our homework and missing assignments. Handling everything while living away from home – like most of the other Michigan boys, I still live with a billet family – makes you grow and mature faster than some of your friends. A big thank you to Pat and Theresa McKendry, my billet parents, for making the transition easy, and to my roommate Jack DeBoer for always being there for me.
You get through the grind though, thanks to all the help the NTDP gives us. We have the best facilities at our rink, and we’re provided with a lot of tools to get us to the nest level. The coaches leave it up to us to take responsibility for our development, but they’re there to help us in any way they can – and they’re the best coaches in the world.
The experiences are awesome and the games are awesome. We’re learning how to play in high-pressure games, and we’re playing against older competition. While we’re doing this, we’re creating a brotherhood with our teammates. You can’t go through all this without them. Whether we’re taking on a USHL team that’s full of guys way older than us, or we’re on the road heading to some game or event, we’re with each other every single day. We work, we sweat and we bleed together, and we’re making each other better by competing with each other.
And putting on that Red, White and Blue USA jersey…that might make it all worthwhile just by itself. Chills, every single day.
It’s an honor to play for your country. It’s an honor to play for the NTDP. And I, like the rest of my teammates, am loving every minute of it.