"When I was a U-18 player, any time I got to interact with someone that's been through all the steps and hear what they have to say, share their knowledge — those are the type of people that influenced me the most, the players themselves. "
The 70 players participating in the USA Hockey Girls Under-18 Select Player Development Camp in Biddeford, Maine, this week are not only getting a chance to learn from an experienced coaching staff, they are also soaking up advice from Olympic champions who were once in their skates.
Amanda Pelkey and Brianna Decker both played for the USA Hockey U-18 program in their teens before going on to capture Olympic gold this past winter in South Korea. Now the Olympic gold medalists are back at U-18 Select Camp as coaches because they know how important this part of the process is for the future of USA Hockey.
"These are the young roots; This is USA Hockey building from the bottom up to the Olympic Team," said Decker, who played on the U.S. Under-18 Women’s National Team in 2008 and 2009. "It's a privilege to be invited to these camps and it's just great to see these kids and how much sacrifice and dedication they're putting in. They are eventually going to make it into our shoes one day."
Pelkey believes her time playing in the U-18 program was the catalyst for her becoming an Olympic champion.
"I think that's when the passion grew to become (an Olympic athlete)," she said. "I've said it many times, and a lot of Olympians say it, but once you put on that USA jersey and you get that fire inside of you, that's where it grows, and the determination, hard work and everything else comes with that."
Pelkey credits the experience with the USA Hockey U-18 program for getting her where she is today.
"The U-18 program helped tremendously because, quite honestly, it's all about experience and it definitely helped me gain my confidence within the program and allowed me to work on getting to the Olympic Team," said Pelkey, who played in three straight IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championships from 2009 to 2011.
Decker and Pelkey credit fellow U.S. Olympians like Julie Chu and Jamie Hagerman-Phinney (who are both coaches at this camp, along with gold medalist Kacey Bellamy) with helping USA Hockey grow a culture of success.
"I give a lot (of credit) to our older players, our veterans like Julie Chu and Jamie Hagerman-Pinney, also Olympians. They set the original culture and you modify it when you need to," said Decker.
Decker certainly looked up to Chu, Hagerman-Phinney and the other Olympians who were playing when she was coming up through the system.
“Julie was definitely around all the time and so was Jamie, I think she helped with a couple U-18 things when I was there. I looked up to Julie Chu my entire career and was lucky enough to be able to play with her, too," Decker said of Chu, a four-time Olympian, and Hagerman-Phinney, a member of the 2006 U.S. Women's Olympic Team.
Decker and Pelkey are thrilled to now have a chance to be role models for the next generation.
"It's awesome. When I was a U-18 player, any time I got to interact with someone that's been through all the steps and hear what they have to say, share their knowledge — those are the type of people that influenced me the most, the players themselves. So to have us here, that's how they grow their passion is through our experience," said Pelkey, who is in her second year as a coach at this camp.
"It's actually a little emotional just being able to get back here and help these kids out," added Decker, a member of the 2014 and 2018 U.S. Olympic squads. "It's quite a privilege to be able to come back and coach and be on the U-18 National Team coaching staff. I'm hoping I can share as much of my experience as I can."
The 2018 Olympic gold medalists, who held an autograph and meet-and-greet session in between games on Tuesday night, believe the USA Hockey program will be in good hands for years to come thanks to the U-18 system.
"I definitely don't have any doubts. I think the program is always going to be (moving in the right direction), especially with the staff from our general manager down through our medical staff," said Pelkey. "You see the talent here at a young age … the future is definitely bright."