PLYMOUTH, Mich. — True to the variance in experience levels, Saturday night’s exhibition between the Michigan hockey team and the U-18 U.S. National Team Development Program ended in a lopsided victory for the Wolverines.
In front of 3,715 fans — the largest home crowd for a USNTDP game ever — the college students handily put the high schoolers in their place with a dominant 7-3 victory.
Despite the unfortunate outcome for the youngsters, two USNTDP players — defensemen Bode Wilde and Mattias Samuelsson — got their first taste of the program they will play for next season.
Saturday night, both skaters saw what will follow the completion of their two-year stints with the developmental program based just 20 minutes away from Ann Arbor.
“It was interesting,” Samuelsson said. “Playing them in our rink instead of Yost was definitely pretty cool. A lot of people came out to play, and just to see the way they play and what they can bring was a pretty good experience.”
Added Wilde: “It was pretty exciting. I don’t know too many of those guys, so I got my first impressions of a lot of them on the ice, which was great.”
Born and raised in Birmingham, Mich., Wilde always had the Wolverines on his radar.
As a child, Wilde watched his first college hockey game from the stands of Yost Ice Arena. Years later, he’ll have the chance to lace up his skates and play on that same ice — donning the maize and blue.
“I’ve had a relationship with (Michigan assistant coach Brian Wiseman) for a while and when (coach Mel Pearson) came in, I had an opportunity to meet him,” Wilde said. “After that, it was a no-brainer for me.
“Pearson just explained to me the style and way the team played. And I think it really suits how I play as a player, so it’s a good fit.”
In 23 games this season, Wilde ranks third on the USNTDP in assists and points with 11 and 15, respectively. Almost half his points — two goals and five assists — have come against nine NCAA teams, many of which he may face again as a Wolverine.
Wilde attributes his success to the daily — and intense — regimen of the USNTDP over the past year and a half, particularly noting the importance of facing a plethora of Division I and III opponents.
“I think my play has grown in all areas,” Wilde said. “I’ve become a lot sounder defensively and just learning how to create offense without the puck rather than with it.”
Samuelsson has also put up impressive numbers, notching four goals and seven assists in 22 games, including two helpers Saturday night.
Unlike Wilde, the Voorhees, N.J. native heard about Michigan through word-of-mouth before ultimately committing.
“Ann Arbor is a great college town and then on top of that, it’s a great hockey program,” Samuelsson said. “I’ve heard a lot about it from guys that I know there, and they have nothing but good things to say, so it just seemed like a great move.”
Samuelsson hails from a hockey family. His father, Kjell, played in the NHL for 14 years and is currently the Director of Player Development for the Philadelphia Flyers. His brother, Lukas, plays at Western Michigan University.
The six-foot-four blueliner came into the USNTDP needing to put on some body weight. Through daily gym exercises, Samuelsson built his frame, and now the 217-pounder is a regular in the rotation, competing against some of the nation’s best young players.
But even after making strides in the program, Samuelsson knows there is still room for improvement in his play, as evidenced by his takeaways from facing the Wolverines.
“They win a lot of battles, and you could tell that when they have opportunities to score, they don’t mess up,” Samuelsson said. “You can’t take a shift off. These guys are older, stronger and they’ll take advantage of you if you’re slacking.”
Wilde believes winning at the college level starts with keeping pace with other skaters and upping the tempo on the ice.
“Just focusing on playing fast, that’s a big one,” Wilde said. “College players are big and strong, so I need to make sure I’m really focusing on what I do in the weight room and work on my defensive game. That’s going to be big next year.”
Wilde and Samuelsson will come to Michigan well-traveled, with impressive international resumes. As members of the USNTDP, the defensemen won the 2016 U17 Four Nations Tournament and 2017 U17 Five Nations Tournament.
Wilde also secured the 2016 World Under-17 Challenge and Samuelsson received a gold medal in the 2016 Youth Olympic Games.
Many Wolverines have similar achievements to their names. Ten icemen on its current roster — and 47 to date — played for the USNTDP. Over the past 18 years, many matched up against their future team in the annual contest before ultimately finding a home at Yost the next season.
Coming into the weekend, Pearson admitted his gaze may wander during the exhibition to a handful of players in red, white and blue sweaters — like Wilde and Samuelsson, though he couldn’t comment any further.
“I can’t talk about specific guys obviously, but there’s no question about it,” Pearson said last Tuesday. “Every year we play them, you’re always anxious and hope your guys play well against you. No question about it, you’ll have an eye on your team, but you’ll be wondering how player A, B, C does too.”
After Saturday’s exhibition, Pearson had a similar response when asked how a certain few USNTDP players performed.
“We know who they are, we know all the good players. They’ve got a roster full of players,” Pearson said. “But it’s hard to just focus on your team and try to judge our team as the game goes, so it was a good experience for us to watch our guys, but also to watch their team a little bit.
“And I noticed some guys.”