They've come to this hockey hothouse in South Dakota from seven U.S. states, Russia and Latvia.
And the lone Canadian, a skinny kid from Winnipeg, might be the best of the bunch.
Jayden Perron has only been playing in the U.S. for five months, but he's already having a transforming effect on his team, the Sioux Falls Power 16U, which plays at the top level of American AAA hockey.
"This guy is a culture-changer," says his coach Noëlle Needham. "How he plays, how he performs, how he trains, how he respects the game and how much he loves the game and is obsessed with it — it's transformed how the rest of the kids on our team approach it as well.
"When he goes on in the ice, he makes people around him not only better but he makes the game easier for them. He plays the right way, he's an honest 200-foot player and yes there's always going to be things he can do to continually improve. But, at this level, the way his brain works, the type of teammate he is, he is a very unique and special individual."
Talent evaluators have been aware of Perron's skill set for some time. An explosive skater and playmaker, the shifty centre averaged almost three points per game with the Winnipeg Warriors in 2019-20.
In the spring of 2020, Perron was the No. 2 overall pick by the OCN Blizzard in the MJHL Draft and chosen 23rd overall by the WHL's Portland Winterhawks.
Through it all, Perron and his family made it clear the NCAA was their preferred route for development.
The Winterhawks couldn't be faulted for hoping for a change of plans, but when the pandemic stalled Perron's season with the Winnipeg AAA U18 Bruins in fall, it accelerated his plans to play south of the border and it wouldn't be in Portland, where all hockey activities were on hold through the winter until last month.
South Dakota, meanwhile, remained largely free of major restrictions.
"I had the opportunity to come here at the start of the year but I decided to stay home for one more year," says Perron, who turned 16 on Jan. 11. "But basically as soon as the season (in Winnipeg) got shut down, I decided to come here."
Perron believes heading stateside has opened up a world of opportunity.
In fact, a month after joining the Power, the USHL’s Chicago Steel forfeited a first-round draft pick to sign Perron to a tender agreement in December and now he’s considered a big part of the club's plans for 2021-22.
USHL rules require tendered players to play at least 55 per cent of a team's games.
Doreen Perron says her son decided to accept the Power's invite to play on a Tuesday and by Thursday, she was delivering him to his billet's house in Sioux Falls. Two days later, the team was on a flight to Texas for a weekend series in Dallas.
"I don't think he's looked back; I haven't looked back," says Doreen. "It was probably the best decision I could have made as a parent. I don't think I could have watched the entire winter of him sitting here, being trapped like the rest of us in Manitoba."
Playing and going to school under the guidance of Needham, who founded Legend Hockey, a training centre in Sioux Falls, has been a fresh inspiration for Perron. He says he's training harder and the facilities, which include a personal trainer and other amenities, have allowed him to fine tune his fitness.
"Most of our team has moved away (from home) so they're all really focused on getting to the next level," he says. "I really like the atmosphere around here... Growing up in Winnipeg you kind of play against the same guys your whole life and play with the same guys and after I moved here, it's a whole new hockey world, which is pretty cool."
Playing for a respected female coach with a rising profile in the game — Needham is a culture-changer herself — is also something new for Perron. He quickly established common ground with his new coach.
"From a mom's perspective, when you have a child that is very passionate about any sport — it can be gymnastics, it can be hockey, it could be art, it doesn't really matter, but if you have a coach that is equally passionate and not just there because of their gender, how could that possibly be a mismatch?" says Doreen Perron.
Needham, who formerly scouted for the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and currently also serves as assistant GM of the Steel, watched closely as Perron adapted to the team and surroundings.
"I think if he could do it over again, he'd come at the beginning (of the season) but sometimes things work out the way they're supposed to and that's what has happened with him," she says. "I think the level of play was just a lot harder and a lot faster just because in the U16 level here a lot of the top kids in the country are still playing at it, and then they move on to juniors.
"This guy is a culture-changer." ‐Coach Noëlle Needham
"So it's a very strong level, and he was surprised by that, but he's adjusted really well. I think he is the best 2005 (born player) in the entire country."
The transition includes a weight gain — Perron now tips the scales at 155 pounds and stands 5-8.
"I feel like I'm definitely a lot stronger — I'm up like 15 pounds since I've gotten here, which is pretty cool for me," says Perron. "I wanted to get bigger and stronger which I have. In the however many months I've been here I feel like overall I've just gotten a lot better."
While he doesn't possess a power game, his high level skating and wizardry with the puck have allowed him to score 18 goals and 45 points in 30 games.
Perron and his teammates take on Team North Dakota in a best-of-three regional playoff series in Brookings, S.D., this weekend with the winner advancing to the national championship.
"I'm enjoying the season a lot, especially these last few weeks," says Perron. "We have playoffs this weekend and nationals coming up soon so l'm just really excited for the future."
Other players have successfully made the transition from Sioux Falls to Chicago.
Steel winger Dawson Pasternak, another Winnipegger, played two seasons with the Power while John Jaworski, a forward at Sacred Heart University, and current Steel goaltender Jack Stark, came through the same pipeline.
Steel GM Ryan Hardy is eager to see how Perron performs when the competition ramps up next fall. He believes Perron's defensive fundamentals are good enough he will be a quick study in the USHL.
"He's a really skilled player but he also has off-the-puck details that are mature beyond his years," says Hardy. "I think anytime a kid comes down here at 16 years old, there always is going to be a learning curve and there's going to be some highs and lows, but I think he can step in and be a contributor in our lineup right away."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.