Olympic hockey camp filled with Minnesotans thrilled to be there

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 28, 2013 - 12:55 AM

The State of Hockey is providing a big share of present and future contenders for the U.S. Olympic hockey team.

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Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, left, a member of the 2013 USA Hockey men’s team, shook hands with a member of the USA Warriors, the national sled hockey team, in Arlington, Va.

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– Wearing a dark blue jersey with the No. 42 on the back and a red, white and blue USA crest on the front, David Backes couldn’t contain his pride in being one of 48 players who unveiled the 2014 USA Olympic sweaters Tuesday.

“Just being on a second Olympic team, those words coming out of my mouth give me chills,” said Backes, the former Spring Lake Park High and Minnesota State Mankato standout. “First Olympic team in 2010, I was flabbergasted, to be honest with you. Being on a second Olympic team blows my mind. It’s so humbling.”

Backes, the captain of the St. Louis Blues, is one of 14 Minnesota-born players who spent the past three days at the U.S. Olympic men’s hockey orientation camp.

The number of Minnesotans was double the next highest state, Michigan, with seven. U.S. assistant coach Todd Richards, the former Wild coach who now coaches Columbus, says there was an undeniable pride Sunday night when players introduced themselves at the team hotel.

In fact, it seemed every other player introduced during Tuesday’s jersey ceremony was from the self-described State of Hockey.

“Obviously, we’re representing the USA, but when you heard the names, there’s a lot of pride that comes out of the state of Minnesota,” said Richards, the former Gophers defenseman and native of Crystal. “It’s what every Minnesotan takes pride in. We’re a hockey state. To have 14 guys here, that says a lot.”

The Wild’s Zach Parise is not only the most famous, but he’s also a role model for a lot of the young Minnesotans. Ask Parise which players he looked up to as a young U.S. hockey player at his first Olympic camp in 2006, and he utters names such as Bill Guerin, Chris Drury, Mike Modano and Keith Tkachuk.

None is from Minnesota. Ask the young Minnesotans at this camp, and one after another says Parise.

“It’s a cool feeling,” a blushing Parise said.

Other Minnesotans in camp were defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, Justin Faulk, Jake Gardiner, Erik Johnson, Nick Leddy, Paul Martin and Ryan McDonagh; and forwards Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Okposo, T.J. Oshie, Derek Stepan and Blake Wheeler.

Martin, a native of Elk River, a former national champion with the Gophers and a Pittsburgh Penguins veteran, badly wants to make the 2014 team. In 2006, he and former Wild center Matt Cullen were members of the U.S. taxi squad in Torino, Italy. But they didn’t stay in the Olympic Village, didn’t get in a game and weren’t part of most team activities.

In 2010, Martin was a lock to make the U.S. team in Vancouver until a broken forearm ruined his Olympic dream.

“That’s been my biggest disappointment as an athlete to this point,” Martin said. “It took a long time for me to accept the fact that I wasn’t going. It was fun to watch. The guys did great. Selfishly, I wish I could have been there. I think that makes this opportunity that much more special for me just being able to hopefully get a chance to finally play a game.”

This is also a dream for Richards, who was cut from the 1988 Olympic team.

“As a kid growing up in Minnesota, you always dream of the Olympics,” Richards said. “The progression back when I played was high school, college for a couple years and then the Olympics. And I didn’t make the team. So I lost that opportunity. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get another opportunity.”

The 2013-14 season will be, for about half the players at the camp, “a tryout,”as Gardiner called it. So a youngster like Stepan, a Rangers forward, must prove himself, although the Hastings native has a tremendous shot because center is the one position where the U.S. lacks depth. Then there are young puck-moving defensemen such as Minnetonka’s Gardiner and Eden Prairie’s Leddy.

On the international ice sheet — 15 feet wider than an NHL rink — skating “is more at a premium, so I think that suits Jake’s game perfectly,” said forward James van Riemsdyk, a Minnesota resident who is Gardiner’s camp roommate and Toronto Maple Leafs teammate.

Youngsters such as Blaine’s Bjugstad and South St. Paul’s Faulk are longshots, but orientation camp was still a positive experience.

“I don’t know if it’s the time for every one of these younger guys, but I do know USA Hockey has a bright future ahead of us,” said David Poile, general manager of the U.S. Olympic team. “I clearly see our present and I clearly see our future.”

And many players in it come by way of Minnesota.

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