Maddox Fleming had been back on the ice for only a couple of days when the pain in his stomach started.

He and a handful of his teammates on the U.S. National Team Development Program U17 men’s hockey team had just come off a two-week quarantine, due to some positive COVID-19 tests within the program.

“My stomach started hurting a bit,” Fleming said. “I tried to wait it out, then decided I needed to go get it checked.”

It wasn’t COVID, but Fleming said he feels fortunate that he decided to get the pain assessed by a doctor. Hours later, Fleming had his appendix removed.

“It was completely random, nothing that I had done wrong … but I had been up all night not feeling well,” he said. “At that moment it was a little frustrating. My appendix was pretty (enlarged) so the doctors wanted it out right there and then, so I had it taken out and was able to recover at home.”

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Fleming, a Rochester native who played high school hockey at Mayo as an eighth-grader and freshman from 2017-19, spent last year at Shattuck St. Mary’s in Faribault before moving on to the prestigious National Team Development Program this year. He’s just the second Rochester native to play for “The Program,” as players and alums call it, joining Mark Stuart, who played for the NTDP from 2000-02 and became a first-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins in 2003.

Between the time in quarantine and the time off to recover from appendicitis, Fleming missed two months worth of games. He played in the USNTDP’s 6-1 win against the Shreveport Mudbugs of the NAHL on Nov. 1, then was out of the lineup until Dec. 30, when the NTDP lost at Green Bay of the USHL, 6-3.

Though he’d only played in 12 games this season, as of the middle of last week, Fleming has shown his offensive ability, averaging a point per game, with one goal and 11 assists, for the team based in Plymouth, Mich., a far western suburb of Detroit.

Maddox Fleming
Maddox Fleming

“It’s awesome here,” he said. “It’s honestly like a dream. The guys who were here before always preach how cool it is. It’s unbelievable just being able to practice against these guys every day, to go in the shooting room. It’s always competitive, like ‘I can do this, or he can do this.’ The next guy wants to do more and it builds and builds.

“The best part is we’re only a quarter of the way through it and we’ll only get better and better.”

HOCKEY IS LIFE

Players at the USNTDP are, as the name would suggest, heavily immersed in hockey. The 20 players on the U17 team are the best in the country in their age group. Many, including Fleming, have already committed to Division I college programs -- Fleming will play at Notre Dame beginning in the 2022-23 season -- projected as high-round NHL Draft picks.

The players do all of their schooling online in a classroom at the USNTDP’s facility. Fleming said being part of The Program is a lot like having a full-time job, except there aren’t many full-time jobs that are as fun as this.

“We have a pretty cool schedule in terms of hockey and school,” said Fleming, a straight-A student who had just finished an AP calculus class when reached by phone one evening last week. “We get up at 7:30 or 8, head to the rink, shoot some pucks, go to class for an hour and a half or two hours, then we have some flex time to shoot pucks or lift weights.

“We practice for 90 minutes, two hours, which is awesome, then hit the weight room and put in a lot of work there. At 3:30 or 4 we have some time to go shoot pucks again or work on mobility stuff, watch video or work with our strength coaches.”

The weight room and strength training part of the program has been perhaps the biggest benefit for Fleming so far, he said. He’s grown to 6-feet, 180 pounds and is hoping to add another inch and another 10-15 pounds over the next couple of seasons.

“For a guy like me -- some guys came in just huge -- this is good for me to put on a lot more muscle,” he said. “I’ve put on six or seven pounds of muscle since I’ve been here. We’re skating and working hard every day, but still putting on muscle. Our strength coaches are world class.”

Fleming’s goal since his days in the Rochester Youth Hockey Association has been to be the best at what he does. That hasn’t changed, even with a college scholarship secured. What does he still need to improve about his game?

“The easy answer is ‘everything,’” he said. “I want to work more on scoring goals. I’ve had shots, been shooting every single day. I’ve been hitting pipes, I’ve been close. It’ll start going in one of these days.

“We have guys who can do everything here, score goals, be play shut-down defense. I just want to work on everything. I want to be the best at everything.”