USA Hockey’s NTDP has talented, rich Arizona flavor with desert trio
Eyebrows used to be raised when a talented hockey player was said to be from Arizona.
Then Zac Larraza and Auston Matthews burst onto the scene and people began to realize that amazing hockey players could indeed come from the desert.
But even as Matthews, a Scottsdale native and reigning NHL Rookie of the Year now in his second season with the Toronto Maple Leafs – and picking up this year where he left off last season – skated two seasons for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP) in suburban Detroit, as did Larraza, also from Scottsdale, three more phenoms have emerged from Arizona to make an impact with the NTDP in D.J. King, Erik Middendorf and Adam Samuelsson.
The trio was named to the NTDP’s Under-17 Team last season and have continued with the Under-18 Team for the 2017-18 campaign.
Just Middendorf was born in the state (Scottsdale) – the other two played youth hockey there for long stints – but all three are leaving their mark with two of them already committed to NCAA Division I powerhouses for the future.
Middendorf has chosen to play for the University of Denver, the 2017 national champions, while Samuelsson, who was injured much of last season, is off to Boston College. King said he is keeping all of his options open for the 2018-19 season.
Still, having three players with desert ties on the same national team is a feather in the cap for Arizona.
“It’s pretty cool to have three of us here,” Middendorf said. “Ever since Zac and Auston came here, it’s kind of opened the world to Arizona hockey. There are a lot of young guys coming out of Arizona and I keep hearing that a lot of skilled guys are playing there right now, so that’s huge for Arizona.”
All three skated for the Jr. Coyotes during their youth days, with King and Samuelsson plying their trade there from 2004-09. Once King and Samuelsson left Arizona for other opportunities, the trio was reunited in the spring of 2016 at the NTDP Evaluation Camp where the top 40 United States-born players born in 2000 were invited to showcase their talents with hopes of playing for the NTDP.
Each player was dynamic at the camp and was offered spots in the program. All three accepted.
“I came to the top-40 camp with all the best players in our age group (2000 birth years) and I got to see a lot of my old friends, especially guys like Samuelsson and King, and I got a call one day before school and said I had 24 hours to decide,” remembered Middendorf. “I had a lot of great people call me, like Danton Cole, who coached here (now the head coach at Michigan State University), and then Auston Matthews called me later that night. I decided I wanted to come here pretty quickly after that.”
“Obviously, it’s a huge honor,” said King. “You get to represent your country every day – that’s pretty awesome.”
“It’s a huge honor to get picked to wear this jersey and I take pride in doing that,” added Samuelsson.
After leaving Arizona, King skated in the Toronto area for the Mississauga Rebels AAA organization and Samuelsson went out East to play for the Connecticut Jr. Rangers.
The three NTDP players all have a history in the game with family members.
Middendorf’s uncle, Max, played 11 seasons of pro hockey, which included 13 NHL games with Edmonton and Quebec, while Derek King, D.J.’s father, played 830 NHL games with Toronto, Hartford, New York Islanders and St. Louis, and Samuelsson’s father, Ulf, played almost 1100 NHL games, winning Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in 1991 and 1992, and also served as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes from 2006-11.
Max Middendorf also played for Team USA at the 1986 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Samuelsson’s brothers, Philip and Henrik, are playing pro hockey after being high NHL draft picks. A sister, Victoria, is a junior this season at NCAA Division I Penn State University.
“My dad (Matthew) played growing up, but decided to go play college football,” said Middendorf. “My uncle decided to keep playing and growing up, me and my brother (Connor) had the choice of playing football or hockey and it was always hockey for us. My uncle will text me once in a while to ask how I’m playing and to tell me he’s watched my games, so that’s a pretty cool feeling.”
And with King and Samuelsson being immersed in the game since birth, the choice was an easy one for them when it came to sports. When it came to positive influences as coaches in Arizona, the trio mentioned names such as Shawn McCosh, the late John Koper, Brian Savage, and all three fathers.
“They all put a great group of players together and we had some pretty good teams down there,” said King. “Hockey in Arizona has really grown a lot. When I was there, guys were mostly playing football and baseball – not a lot of people were talking about hockey down there, but now, you’re seeing more and more players coming out of Arizona and playing high levels of junior hockey and like we’ve all seen, Auston Matthews in the NHL.
“My dad and I talk every day and he gives me tips on how to be a good pro and that it’s all about doing the little things right. He’s been a huge influence on me and my career so far.”
“I always had options on which sport I would play, but with hockey, I fell in love with it right away,” said Samuelsson. “I just grew into it, really, and I don’t even know how I started playing.”
Another similarity all three players have in playing for NTDP is living away from home.
“It really hasn’t been that bad,” said Middendorf. “I thought it would be a lot different coming out here, but we’re all so busy, so you never really have time to miss anything from back home. Everybody here is going through the same thing and if you’re ever having a bad day, you just look to the guy next to you. There are 21 other guys doing exactly what you’re doing, so it’s not that bad at all. And it’s easy to stay in touch with my family with FaceTime and stuff these days, so it’s really easy not to get homesick.”
The biggest goal for the NTDP Under-18 Team is to win the World Under-18 Championships next April, a tournament where Team USA has had gold medal success in recent years.
“You just take it day by day here,” said Middendorf. “Every day is a challenge and they give you everything you need here; you just have to take advantage of it. Just use all the resources here and work hard every day.”
“Worlds is a big thing, but you just want to get better every day,” King said. “For everyone here, it’s about getting better each day in practice and then being successful in games.”
Photo/Rena Laverty/USA Hockey
— Matt Mackinder
(Nov. 8, 2017)