While international play for American teenagers is typically dominated by those who came from USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, the annual Hlinka-Gretzky tournament is an exception. Instead, the Americans use the under-18 showdown to give other high-end kids a chance to don the Stars and Stripes, whether they play major junior, USHL or high school hockey.
This year, one of the most notable players on the squad is Zam Plante, the fantastically-named center from Minnesota and the oldest son of former NHLer Derek Plante.
A breakout star in the Minnesota high school ranks last year, Plante racked up 29 goals and 61 points in just 20 games for the Hermantown Hawks, a powerhouse program that has developed the likes of Dylan Samberg (WPG) and Blake Biondi (MTL) in recent years.
"It's great," Plante said. "There is so much pride in the program and everybody is trying to get better there. It's awesome, especially since we've been really successful as well. It's the development; guys want to play hockey there and it's competitive so everybody's getting better every day. We've got the outdoor rinks and guys will go out and skate for six or seven hours."
This past season, Plante also got into four games with the NAHL's Minnesota Wilderness, getting a taste of true intensity in the process.
"That was a big jump from high school," he said. "We played Aberdeen the first two nights so my first two junior games we had 128 PIM and a couple of line brawls. It was an eye-opener."
Next season, the plan is for Plante to play a before-and-after schedule that is common with high-end high school players in the United States: He'll start off in the USHL with the reigning champion Chicago Steel, then head back to Hermantown for the high school season in late November. Once the Hawks are done in early March, Plante will return to the Steel for the duration of the USHL season.
Getting to play in the Hlinka-Gretzky tournament will be a great experience for the 2022 NHL draft prospect and he found the scoresheet right away, tallying in an exhibition win over the Czechs and the opening game loss against Slovakia.
"Zam is a really fun player to watch," said Team USA GM Roger Grillo. "He plays the game with a lot of creativity, he sees the ice and he makes other players better. He plays with pace and the most impressive thing about him is that he has that high-end skill level but he also competes consistently. That will help our team and it bodes well for him in the future."
The key for his immediate future is to continue getting stronger for the 5-foot-9, 155-pound sparkplug. Luckily, he's got a pretty easy mentor to follow in dad Derek, who is now an associate coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where Zam recently announced his commitment.
Derek was still playing professionally when Zam was born and the kid's passport is pretty impressive. Zam was born in Germany and also lived in Japan and Switzerland before coming home to the U.S. and being raised in Hermantown, a suburb of Duluth.
Zam's younger brothers Max and Victor also play hockey and Derek's influence is all over his kids.
"He was very good at teaching us how to play the game the right way," Zam said. "If you watched all three of us, we take pride in playing defense first and making plays – that comes from him."
As for his distinct name, Plante has never gotten an explanation from his parents as to where 'Zam' came from.
"They don't know, they just wanted something different," he said. "It didn't come from Zamboni, like everybody thinks."