ST. PAUL, Minn. — In the revelry that followed being drafted in the first round by the Minnesota Wild last month, Alex Tuch was approached by members of the organization and asked about Louis Belpedio, who Tuch played with last season as part of the U.S. National Under-18 team.
Tuch wasn’t sure what the line of questioning meant, but he figured the Wild were interested in his former captain with the Team USA. The pieces came together when Minnesota used its second pick in the draft to select Belpedio in the third round.
"I kind of had a little clue that he might be picked, but I didn’t know when," Tuch revealed last week at the Wild’s development camp. "They asked me about him, but I didn’t want to ruin it, so I didn’t text him or anything. But that was really special too. I was really excited about it."
The paths Tuch — from Syracuse, N.Y. — and Belpedio — from Skokie, Ill. — first crossed in 2012. The two, off to different college programs this fall, have spent the past two years together in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Tuch and Belpedio were two of 19 total players drafted in June that had ties to the development program. Tuch, the 12th-ranked North American skater by the Central Scouting Service and the top North American skater available when Minnesota made him the 18th overall pick, was one of three first-round selections.
Four Minnesota natives — Ryan Collins, Jack Dougherty, Jack Glover and Shane Gersich — were drafted this year as products of the Under-18 team. Belpedio, the captain of the team, was ranked 107th by the Central Scouting Service and picked 80th overall by the Wild.
"I don’t think I’d be here if I hadn’t gone there," Belpedio said last week. "The resources you have there are great. I can’t thank the coaches enough for that. Overall it was a great experience."
He later added: "It’s a two-year process. You can see some things right away, but looking back on it now, it helped a ton."
In lieu of playing high school hockey, Tuch and Belpedio competed on a bigger stage with the national team in Under-17 and Under-18 programs. Last year, they helped Team USA win a gold medal at the 2014 Under-18 World Championships.
During the season, the Under-18 team plays a schedule with games against other teams in the United States Hockey League, the top junior league in the country, as well as games against college teams from the NCAA and international tournaments.
The program has featured players like the Wild’s Ryan Suter, Keith Ballard, Jordan Schroeder and Jason Zucker, as well as Chicago’s Patrick Kane, Anaheim’s Ryan Kesler, Toronto’s Phil Kessel, St. Louis defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and Detroit goaltender Jimmy Howard.
"I think it just keeps getting better and better," Minnesota assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. "You have a group of players that play together for a couple years. The way they train off the ice, the way they go through and play in a very pro-style environment, so, they’re well-conditioned. They play at a high level of competition against college teams in the tournaments.
"So (Tuch and Belpedio have) played in a lot of big games already for young kids. Both of them when you talk to them are mature kids and they know where they want to be and how to get there."
In the meantime, Tuch will head to Boston College where he will join another Wild prospect, Adam Gilmour. The two played on a line together during the development camp. Belpedio will play at Miami University.
Now friends, both credited their time in the development program for their hopeful destination of being together in Minnesota.
"You really had to grow up in the past two years and you became a man," Tuch said. "I just think my confidence has grown a lot in the past two years and I’ve been able to take my confidence and put all my pieces together really. My skating ability and just being that big, strong power forward; my identity has really shown in the past year and it’s really helped me get drafted."
Belpedio added: "There’s always resources there for you. The guys that took advantage of that definitely got better."
Tuch and Belpedio have work to do to reach the NHL one day. Two years in Ann Arbor at least helped their development.
"Versus a kid playing high school hockey, these guys have played in the world championships and big games and it’s just a little bit of a difference there," Flahr said. "Four or five years down the road does it make a difference? I don’t know. But at this point it certainly seems to."