For the Traverse City North Stars, this weekend isn't just a pair of games against the Team USA under-17s - an all-everything collection of the most acclaimed players from the four corners of the country - it's a two-day measuring stick.
To date, the neophyte Stars have forayed into a first-ever training camp, initial North American Hockey League game, and inaugural home opener, and after the Sept. 30-Oct. 1 set with Team USA's U-17 squad, the North Stars will get their first true on-ice progress report.
"They give any league instant credibility," North Stars coach Scott Gardiner said of the US national development program's presence in the NAHL. "These are the top prospects in their age group in the country. Most of them have (NCAA) Division I scholarships in their pocket already, so for us to get to compete against a team like that is a great experience for our guys."
Team USA U-17 head coach Ron Rolston concedes that his roster is chock-full of prowess, but says that the 17-year old age limit means less raw bulk.
"Some might slip through the cracks, but we think we have the top talent in the age group," said Rolston, whose team is coming off a 2-1 shootout win at Cleveland on Saturday. "But we're talking about 1989 birthdays playing against some 1985's, guys with a lot of experience who can be more physically developed."
The combined record of the Team USA U-17 and U-18 go into the NAHL standings, and the tandem's current mark stands at 6-2-1, good enough for first place early on in the North Division race. The joint U-17/U-18 participation in the league is a unique feature to the NAHL, but with the added exposure to college scouts for opponents, and the bar-raising dynamic that comes with playing against the best foes, Gardiner says it's a huge benefit.
"We're coming off a series with Alpena, and USA is a totally different kind of team," he explained. "Alpena brings different things than the speed and skill, but USA - man, they can go. It's great for our team to play against that. We'll just continue to get better every week, and this will help us do that."
The U-17 team features a balanced scoring attack. Forward Ryan Hayes, a draft pick of the OHL's Plymouth Whalers last May, leads the club in scoring with three points over four games, and only two others - forwards Philip McRae and Colin Wilson - have collected more than a single point to date. Brad Phillips and Josh Unice have shared time in net for the U-17s, and Phillips has posted the better numbers, allowing an average of 2.27 goals per outing with a .904 save percentage.
The host North Stars are also riding high, after a 7-3 victory against Alpena in the closing contest of the team's home opening weekend on Saturday. Patrick Nagorsen leads TC with five points in the club's five contests. Forwards Jared Mullen and Travis Paeth - and helper-happy defenseman Luc Du Bay (four assists) - have contributed four points apiece. Forward Danny Dries is tied for the team lead in goals scored with Nagorsen with three. Jeremy Kaleniecki has worked almost 280 minutes of a possible 305 minutes so far in 2005-06, and has a goals against average of 3.43 despite facing an average of almost 30 shots a game.
"We're going to have to be at our best," Gardiner said. "We're playing a very skilled opponent."