When 11 of the 26 players on a team are in the same class, as is
the case with the juniors on the Michigan ice hockey team, there
are clear benefits and drawbacks.

Kate Green
SETH LOWER/Daily
Michigan junior center Dwight Helminen ducks to avoid the hit of an oncoming Northern Michigan defender.

They can either become a close-knit group, or competition for
playing time can make them a tension-ridden bunch.

They can all step right in and contribute, or the transition to
college hockey can be too tough and they can fail to maximize their
collective potential.

Fortunately for the Wolverines, things worked better than even
the coaching staff could have hoped. The juniors — nine of
whom play regularly — have been instrumental in the
team’s Frozen Four runs the past two years, and they give
reason to believe that this year and next can be even better.

That leaves one question, though: What happens when
they’re all gone?

While a time without the class of 2005 is still in the distant
future, the Michigan coaches are busy determining exactly who will
step up in its place.

Saturday, two future Wolverines — forward Bryan Lerg and
defenseman Jack Johnson — played at Yost Ice Arena as members
of the U.S. Under-18 National Team Development Program.

Both went pointless in Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the
Wolverines, but their abilities were obvious when they were on the
ice, and their coach believes Michigan is getting a pair of
“big-time players.”

“Bryan Lerg is a complete player,” U.S. Under-18
coach John Hynes said. “He plays both ends of the ice. He
takes a lot of our important faceoffs.

“He’s at a level where he can compete against older
guys because of his work ethic in the weight room and skill
set.”

For Lerg, choosing Michigan was tough because he will graduate
from high school this year, but he won’t have a spot on the
roster unless an underclassman leaves. Most likely, he will spend
next year playing major junior hockey and wait for a spot to open
up.

“It’s not the greatest situation,” the Livonia
native said. “I get really antsy. But there’s nothing I
can do about it. I want to go to Michigan, so I’ve just got
to wait around and be patient.”

Hynes thinks just as highly of Johnson, who was moved up from
the Under-17 team just last week.

“Jack Johnson is a kid who’s a phenomenal
talent,” Hynes said. “He’s got things that you
can’t teach, and he’s got a high competitive
level.”

Johnson, who hails from Faribault, Minn., knows just one player
currently on the Wolverines. Senior captain Andy Burnes was a
counselor when he went to Michigan hockey camp four years ago.

“I talked to him last week at the Ohio State game,”
Johnson said. “I told him to take it easy with us. He just
laughed at me.”

Though it was hardly their best effort, the Wolverines played
hard, and the Under-18 squad hung around and even tied the score
early in the third period.

Playing at Yost and in Ann Arbor, where the US-NTDP is based,
was a thrill for both Lerg and Johnson.

“I enjoyed it a lot, especially the crowd,” Lerg
said. “I was kind of trying to block it out and listen to it
at the same time. I’d been waiting for this game for a long
time.”

Johnson agreed, saying: “It was an honor and a blast. I
tried to soak up every minute of it. It was the most fun I’ve
ever had playing hockey.”

Red, white — and Blue

The U.S. National Team Development Program is a popular breeding
ground for future Michigan hockey players. Here are the seven
current Wolverines who honed their skills at the Ice Cube (the
program’s home arena, located in Ann Arbor).

Dwight Helminen Under-18 Team in 2000-2001

Eric Nystrom Under-18 Team in 2000-2001

Jason Ryznar Under-18 Team in 2000-2001

Al Montoya Under-17 Team in 2001-2002

Mike Brown Under-18 Team in 2002-2003

T.J. Hensick Under-18 Team in 2002-2003

Matt Hunwick Under-18 Team in 2002-2003

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