Motte, Downing Earning Their Stripes
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. Tyler Motte and Michael Downing have a lot more in common than just the Maize and Blue on their University of Michigan helmets.
For both, this summer’s USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp is about proving they’re worth the red and white stripes of that Team USA jersey, after both were among the final cuts on the last year’s team.
Motte’s cut might have been the most painful. He was with the World Junior team throughout its training and exhibition schedule before being sent home on Christmas Day, as the last cut made before the team headed to Sweden for the tournament.
“It fueled my fire all year,” Motte said. “It was tough last year being the last cut, especially on Christmas. But this camp is another opportunity for me to put on the USA jersey which is something I’ve always wanted. I strive for it every year, and it’s an honor to put it back on.”
Downing’s road was just as tumultuous. Despite consistently being one of the top defensemen in his age group throughout youth hockey, he wasn’t even invited to the USA Hockey evaluation camp last summer after he went through inconsistencies in his game during his draft year.
“I had what they call “draftitis,’ where I just didn’t have a good draft year,” Downing said. “I was supposed to come to this camp at the beginning (of last year) and my consistency was just bad. I was up and down all year. I wanted to prove everyone wrong coming into Michigan last year and make a statement, and I think I did that. I had a good year. Around Christmas I knew how well I was playing and just kept doing what I was doing. Last year, once I got to Michigan, was probably one of the best years of hockey I’ve had.”
His play was so up and down before Michigan that he slid to the fourth round of the NHL Draft, picked by the Florida Panthers.
But he rebounded quickly. He was playing so well one he arrived in Ann Arbor that despite not participating in the summer camp, he was the last defensemen left off the World Junior team, with the last spot going to Colorado College freshman Jaccob Slavin.
“That was definitely motivating and it helped my confidence,” Downing said. “I don’t let a lot of stuff like that affect me, but where my consistency was up and down, knowing that I was close, it was definitely motivating.”
This summer, both Motte and Downing have taken on a leadership role. J.T. Compher, their Michigan teammate, suffered a hand injury against Sweden and will miss the rest of this camp. But, he’s sticking around to help with team building and is a favorite to be named the team’s captain. Motte and Downing are following suit, providing leadership on their line, and in the locker room.
Motte is on the left-wing side of Jack Eichel and Alex Tuch.
“When we were putting some of the lines together, we were thinking, by birth year, to have an older guy on each line,” U.S. head coach Mark Osiecki said. “Maturity does matter. Motte is more experienced, he’s been around it, and he’s a little more mature. That doesn’t mean his linemates aren’t mature, but Motte’s just a year older.”
Neither Motte nor Downing have their ticket punched to Montreal for this winter’s tournament just yet – there are more cuts coming from Osiecki – but both players seem to be in good positions as long as their play continues the way it has during the first half of their seasons at Michigan.
Motte is playing on a line with Jack Eichel, a lock for the team, and has set the camp on fire, potting a hat trick in Team USA’s 9-1 win over Finland on Thursday. Downing, who scored on Wednesday against Sweden, has been one of the team’s best defensemen.
“We’re still trying to identify what (Downing’s) strengths and weaknesses will be,” Osiecki said. “He has a bomb from the blue line, that’s for sure, there’s no doubt about that. His awareness from the red line back has continued to show improvement. It’s hard for a defenseman to jump into summer hockey. You haven’t done much defending at all, and he likes to get into the offense when he can, but he’s getting back to it on the defensive side of things.”
Both Downing and Motte credit college hockey, playing with stronger, more experienced players, with helping their development over the past year.
“It’s a big jump,” Downing said. “The guys are a lot quicker and they’re a lot stronger. I’ve put on about 25 pounds, so I think I started to make that jump too. Playing college hockey at Michigan helped me a lot. My timing has always been pretty good, but it’s all about strength and speed which you need in college and at the next level, too.”
Motte added, “They’re all big, strong guys with a couple of development years over you. The biggest thing I learned was that you just have to compete. It’s your compete level. You won’t out-skill everyone, so it has to be about the effort.”
Whether it’s Motte, Downing, or anyone else on this U.S. roster, no has been disappointed with effort to this point.
“They continued playing, and played the right way,” Osiecki said after his team’s 9-1 drubbing of Finland on Thursday. “They never stopped, but they played the right way.”