David Tanabe can vividly recall the moment that reality smacked him in the face and forced him to realize that he wasn’t as good a player as he thought he was.
His U.S. team finished ninth at the 1997 World Under-17 Challenge in Red Deer, Alberta and he returned home knowing exactly how he stacked up against the top players in the world.
“After playing against guys like the Sedin twins [Daniel and Henrik of Sweden] for the first time, I said to myself ‘I am not close to being as good as these guys,’” admitted the native of White Bear Lake, Minn. “I knew I had to do something to get better.”
That something was moving to Ann Arbor, Mich., to join the inaugural class of the National Team Development Program.
A freewheeling defenseman who loved to carry the puck and make plays, Tanabe quickly learned the merits of playing without the puck and being responsible in his own end of the rink from a NTDP staff that included veteran college coaches Jeff Jackson, Bob Mancini and Greg Cronin.
“Going to Ann Arbor and playing in the National Team Development Program was such a good experience for me,” Tanabe said. “I improved as a player, matured off the ice and loved being around all those guys every day in such a challenging, competitive environment.”
Tanabe became the NTDP’s first NHL draft pick (16th overall by Carolina in 1999), and spent one year at the University of Wisconsin before playing 456 NHL games over nine seasons with the Hurricanes, Phoenix Coyotes and Boston Bruins.
So when he talks to young prospects these days about the program, he speaks from first-hand experience.
Now in his second year as a USA Hockey Regional Manager – Scouting, Tanabe has watched more than 250 games and tracked the on- and off-ice development of the top 1998 and 1999-born U.S. players. The hours spent on the road and at the rink have only strengthened his belief in what it takes to be a top player.
“From my experience and what I have watched is that the players who work the hardest are the ones that perform the best when the game is on the line,” said Tanabe, who coached six years at Hill-Murray School, a Catholic prep school in Maplewood, Minn., before returning to his NTDP roots.
“To make it to the NHL you have to have the talent. But you also have to sacrifice. You have to put in those extra hours when other people are off having fun.”
For Tanabe, the NTDP came along at exactly the right time in his development as both a player and a person. He had dominated Minnesota high school games as a junior and his experience with the U.S. team at international tournaments made him realize he was falling behind the top players in the world.
When Bob Mancini, the NTDP assistant coach and director of player personnel, set out to the sell the program to the nation’s best 16- and 17-year-old players, he zeroed in on Tanabe.
“I told him, ‘David, you are a really good player, but do you want to continue to be a big fish in a small pond, or do you want to see how good you are against the world?’” said Mancini.
For the ultra-competitive Tanabe, that was all he had to hear.
“With my personality, that was the ultimate challenge. I wanted to be the best, and so I didn’t care what I had to do,” Tanabe recalled. “Looking back, it seems a little crazy that one conversation would make me leave my high school before my senior year, miss prom and move to Michigan to live with a billet family, but that was how I was wired.”
The idea for the NTDP was conceived in 1996 by veteran college coach Jeff Jackson, who was interviewing for the newly created position of U.S. national coach, a job whose responsibilities included creating a better way to develop the country’s top young players.
Jackson had won two NCAA titles at Lake Superior State in the early 1990s and coached the U.S. squad that finished a disappointing fifth at the 1996 World Junior Championship.
“USA Hockey wanted to develop players for the national teams and with the potential to be NHL players,” Jackson recalled. “And part of the reason I made the choice to take the job was how bad we were at that tournament and how poor our depth was.”
Getting Tanabe and other top players, such as fellow blueliners Jordan Leopold and John-Michael Liles, into the fold helped the NTDP establish credibility right out of the chute.
“We were trying to bring in elite players and no one knew what to expect. For those kids and their families, it was a leap of faith,” Jackson said.
“Those players were the architects of the NTDP. The idea was a sound idea, and people bought into it and guys like Tanabe benefitted from it. And it’s only gotten better.”
Tanabe thrived in Ann Arbor, taking on a leadership role in the fledgling program and figuring out how to juggle a full schedule of school, travel and hockey.
“I wanted to be the best, and when I had the opportunity to go to Ann Arbor, I jumped at it,” he recalled. “It’s not for everybody, but the guys who are prepared for it, it’s a great opportunity to figure out how good you are. The players who will thrive are the ones that are ready for the challenge and will face it head on.”
Now back where it all started, Tanabe has worked at the NTDP tryout camps the last few years coaching a team and even shuttling players from the hotel to the rink and back. His advice to the young prospects includes the message to take the time to educate themselves about their options, including the NTDP, Juniors and college hockey.
“The guys have a lot of opportunities, and there is so much information out there and they are being pulled in so many different directions,” Tanabe said. “If they understand their values, their family’s values and have information about the programs that are out there, it will help them make the decision that is in their best interest. They need to be a part of the process and own their own decisions.”
Having come full circle Tanabe fully appreciates the efforts of USA Hockey to create the NTDP and the opportunities that it provided him.
“Back then I didn’t realize how fortunate I was,” he said. “If I had been an American hockey player 15-20 years earlier, I wouldn’t have had the same outcome.
“There is something to be said for seeing the need for a program like that and making it a reality. Ultimately what the NTDP has done is make everyone work harder and be better. The impact translates to the American game and to the game around the world.
“To be a pioneer in something like that is pretty cool.”