BUFFALO – It was a holiday season Blackhawks prospect Dylan Olsen will never forget.
On Boxing Day, there was his Team Canada debut at the World Junior Hockey Championship. He experienced the thrill of having 20,000 flag-waving Canadians cheer for him and his teammates as they defeated Russia in the first game of the tournament.
On New Year’s Eve, just prior to Canada’s final round-robin game against Sweden, he signed a three-year contract with the Blackhawks. The professional career he had been dreaming about for years became a reality.
On January 3, he celebrated his 20th birthday with a 4-1 semifinal win over Canada’s arch-rival, Team USA. It was the biggest win of his fledgling career.
Then, just two days later, he felt the sting of the most disappointing loss of his career as Canada, carrying a 3-0 lead into the third period of the gold-medal game, suffered one of the worst collapses in international hockey history, giving up five unanswered third-period goals to fall to Russia 5-3.
While the tournament may have ended on a sour note, just about everything else that happened in Buffalo was a thrill for the Salt Lake City native who grew up in Calgary. And with Rockford (American Hockey League) and his first game as a professional next on the agenda, the biggest butterflies in his stomach may be yet to come.
“It’s exciting. Joining the Chicago organization is definitely something that I’ve wanted for a long time now,” said the Hawks’ first-round pick in 2009, who was in the midst of his sophomore season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth when he signed. “To start my pro career is going to be awesome for me. I’m just really, really excited.”
|Nick Leddy helped Team USA to a bronze medal in the World Junior Championships. |
In fact, the 6-foot-2, 223-pound defenseman said one of the challenges for him in Buffalo was to keep his thoughts about the IceHogs at bay during the medal round of the tournament.
“I just had to keep Rockford at the back of my mind,” he said. “I’ve been here and focused on winning a gold medal and it’s the only thought I could have going through my mind. You dream about playing for a gold medal as a kid and getting the opportunity doesn’t come around very often.”
Olsen, who had two assists in seven games for Canada, said he’s not sure when he’ll be arriving with Chicago’s AHL affiliate, but when he does, he’s well aware that he’ll be joining forces with one of his rivals from Team USA.
That would be Nick Leddy, the 18th overall pick in the 2009 draft who signed his own three-year deal with Chicago in the summer. He made his NHL debut at the start of the season before being sent down to Rockford in mid-October.
Although the duo may someday anchor the Blackhawks’ blue line together, Olsen said other than saying hello at training camp they’ve never really spoken. “But I know who he is and he’s a good defenseman,” Olsen said, noting that with Team Canada and Team USA being such fierce foes in Buffalo, HSBC Arena was not the right time or place for them to become better acquainted.
When Leddy, who turns 20 in March, was asked if the semifinal win by Canada is something he expects will be an icebreaker when the two do finally chat – whether it’s as Blackhawk or IceHog teammates – he just smiled and said that “if anything gets heated in practice, I’m sure it’ll be brought up. But I probably won’t really want to talk about it too much. That game was definitely a disappointment.”
Despite the fact that both defensemen didn’t have their gold-medal aspirations realized in Buffalo, both agree that representing their respective countries was not only an honor, but something that will make them better professionals.
“It’s been phenomenal. The competition’s great here. You've just got to be able to adjust your speed and adjust to the good players that you have, and then you’ve got to be able to play with them,” said Olsen, referring to how the World Juniors serves as a perfect transition from the collegiate game to the AHL. “This is a short tournament, but you’ve got to take everything you can away from it.”
He added that when he arrived at Team Canada’s training camp, the coaching staff made clear to him what his role would be.
“They wanted me to be a shutdown defenseman, and in the games they put me up against certain guys so I could shut them down and show them what I could do coming in here,” said Olsen, who had a goal and 12 assists in 17 games in Duluth this season, and ends his career there with two goals and 22 assists in 53 games. The former Camrose Kodiaks (AJHL) star was one of just two collegiate players on Team Canada’s roster.
As for Leddy, he said playing the in the tournament “was definitely an unbelievable experience. It was pretty special to hear the crowd chant U-S-A – it definitely got our boys fired up.”
He then explained how “there’s obviously a ton of great players in this tournament and obviously there’s unbelievable players in the NHL. The speed and the pace of the game are relatively similar.”
Leddy, who played at the University of Minnesota last year, said he wants to use his performance in Buffalo – where he logged three assists in six games – as a springboard to playing the best hockey of his life this winter, whether with Chicago or Rockford.
“I’ll just keep working hard and help out the team in Rockford and hopefully be called up (to Chicago),” he said, before hearing the news about being recalled by the parent club. “It’s an unbelievable place to play in Chicago. The fans are awesome there, so it is definitely fun,” said the 5-11, 180-pound former Mr. Hockey Award winner for the state of Minnesota.