A moment you dream of: From ‘Little Capitals’ to the NHL Draft

In hockey circles around the DMV, it’s become known as the ‘Ovechkin Effect.’ Beginning with Ovechkin’s rookie season in 2005-06, youth hockey has experienced a tremendous boom in the region.

As the Washington Capitals emerged as one of the NHL’s marquee franchises over the last 15 years, young athletes in these parts were drawn to the sport in record numbers. Liam Gilmartin, of Falls Church, Virginia, was among them.

“Growing up, we had season tickets, so we’d always go to the Verizon Center,” Gilmartin recalled over zoom this week. “Watching those games and seeing Ovechkin was my biggest inspiration.”

Liam Gilmartin on the Ovechkin effect on his hockey career

Now 18, Gilmartin is a projected mid-round pick at this weekend’s NHL Draft.

Bryce Montgomery
Bowie’s Bryce Montgomery and his family will be closely following the NHL draft on TV this weekend from a hotel in College Park, Maryland.(Courtesy Bryce Montgomery)

Bryce Montgomery of Bowie, Maryland, is also a projected mid-round pick. Both Gilmartin and Montgomery are products of the Ovechkin Effect and part of a new wave of NHL prospects emerging from the region.

“It’s a moment I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little kid, hearing my name called at the draft,” Montgomery said over Zoom while training in Lynchburg, Virginia, this week at Liberty University. “I’m very grateful for it.”

If selected, Montgomery would become just the second Maryland native drafted in the last 10 years, and the tenth in NHL history. Montgomery and his family will be closely following the draft on television this weekend from a hotel in College Park.

“I don’t think I’m going to really know how it feels until it happens, but I’m assuming it’s going to be a great moment in my life,” he said. “I’m excited for it and I’m grateful for everyone who has supported me in my journey.”

Montgomery, 18, is quick to credit the support — and the athletic genes — he’s received from his family. Both his parents were collegiate athletes, while his grandmother was a U.S. speed skater.

“They all played a role in this moment,” said Montgomery, who played his youth hockey with Team Maryland and the Little Capitals, before moving on to Cushing Academy prep school in Massachusetts.

Representing the D.C. region while emerging as a top hockey prospect, Montgomery said, is a source of pride.

Bryce Montgomery said he's grateful for the opportunity to be drafted

“Maryland is my home and the D.C. area — that’s where I was born,” he said. “I take great pride in being able to represent my area. I have a long road to go still, but I’m thankful to be one of the main representatives from our area for hockey.”

Gilmartin could become the third Virginia native drafted since 2019, but just the tenth in the last 50 years.

It’s all just a blessing,” said Gilmartin, a 6-foot-2-inch, 192-pound forward. “I thank God every day that I can do this and hopefully have a future where I’ll be doing what I love and make money doing what I love. That’s the dream.”

The road to that dream has had several stops for Gilmartin including two years at the renowned Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Minnesota and the past two seasons with USA Hockey’s National Development Team Program (USNDTP) in Michigan.

But the roots of Gilmartin’s hockey journey were planted close to home, first spending hours in the backyard with older brother Conner and later playing youth hockey with the Reston Raiders and the Little Capitals in Arlington.

Liam Gilmartin on rise of youth hockey In DMV

“I grew up at the Reston Iceplex,” he said. “And the Little Caps is really where I started to develop into a more elite level [player] and that took me to where I am now. So, I’m really grateful for the Reston Raiders and the Washington Little Caps.”

According to USA Hockey, youth hockey participation in D.C., Maryland and Virginia (USA Hockey’s Potomac Valley) grew by 48% from 2005-06 through 2017-18.

“There’s a little bubble here, but the game is spreading throughout the country,” Gilmartin said. “The D.C. area is going to be a big hockey area. When I was growing up, it was a really good area and developing really well. A lot of guys in the D.C. area don’t know how far they can take hockey, but if they take it seriously, they can take it very far.”

Among the highlights from Gilmartin’s youth playing days was meeting Ovechkin and having his picture taken with him at a hockey camp when he was seven.

“I think everyone around here grew up loving Ovechkin. He’s an easy player to love, he’s got so much energy and passion for the game.”

Gilmartin prides himself on a mature all-around game with several blue-collar elements. During his second season with the USNDTP last year, he embraced the opportunity to play in a shutdown role while serving as one of the team’s most reliable penalty killers. Those traits, along with Gilmartin’s offensive upside, could bode well for the NHL team that eventually calls his name Saturday.

Bryce Montgomery on representing the DMV on the hockey scene

“Getting ready for the draft, it’s kind of nerve-wracking, but no matter where you end up, you have to take it all as a blessing and not take it for granted.”

Among draft-eligible prospects, Gilmartin is ranked as the 126th best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting. Montgomery is ranked 146th.

Coincidentally, the DMV natives will be teammates next season with the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights where they will play for Capitals alum Dale Hunter. Montgomery appeared in 33 games with the Knights two seasons ago, before last year’s OHL campaign was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Among Montgomery’s teammates two years ago in London was current Capitals prospect and 2019 first-round pick Connor McMichael.

“Playing with guys like McMichael, they let you know what it’s all about. Seeing him with the Caps — it’s really been eye-opening for me too. And being coached by Dale Hunter, too, he’s such a good coach and his background as well, it’s been nothing but awesome for me to be surrounded by those guys on and off the ice.”

Liam Gilmartin describes his style of play
Bryce Montgomery describes his style of play

Given some of his connections to the Capitals, has Montgomery allowed his mind to wander about the possibility of being drafted by his hometown team?

“Any team, I’d be forever grateful to be selected by. It’s such an honor and privilege to be selected in the draft, but if it were the Caps, I’d be just as ecstatic if not more, just that being my hometown team, it would be such an honor. But at the end of the day, I’d be grateful to go to any team at all.”

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