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Oh, say can you 'C'

by Eric Marin / New Jersey Devils
Langenbrunner was named captain of the U.S. team on Jan. 11. He was an injury replacement for Team USA in 1998.

In the first eight years of NHL participation at the Winter Games, Jamie Langenbrunner’s name never made it onto a single 23-man roster.

Now 12 years removed from three appearances with Team USA in Nagano, Langenbrunner is headed to the 2010 Vancouver Games with one of hockey’s highest honors in tow. When the puck drops next month on the Olympic tournament, Langenbrunner will be captaining his country in its quest for a precious medal.

“As far as individual accomplishments, if you’d call it that, it’s got to be right up there,” Langenbrunner said on Monday’s conference call. “I’ve never really prided myself on individual accomplishments for the most part. I think it’s kind of always been about the team. The greatest thing in my career has been winning two Stanley Cups and being a part of those great teams. As far as individual things, I don’t have anything to compare (this) to.”

It has been said that behind every overnight success, there's 20 years of hard work. At 34, Langenbrunner surely fits the bill. Though absent from the American teams in 2002 and 2006, it would have been next to impossible for Team USA general manager Brian Burke to omit the 15-year NHL veteran from his 2010 group.

“He’s been a model of consistency, of versatility, and he’s a guy that does just about everything well on an ice surface, and lots of things well in the dressing room,” Burke said. “There were lots of tough decisions for Team USA going into this Olympic games, but picking our captain wasn’t one of them. It was easy to do.”

Langenbrunner’s rise has been slow and steady, from utility forward to NHL captain. He had his best season just last year, popping in 29 goals and 40 assists for 69 points. Each figure represented a career best, and with 13 goals and 27 assists this year, he’s on pace to set career highs for points in consecutive seasons.

Though he’s never reached 30 goals or cracked 70 points, his Olympic selection and U.S. captaincy speaks louder than most numbers could.

Still, this “C” caught him by surprise.

“Yeah, quite frankly,” Langenbrunner said after practice on Tuesday. “I wasn’t even on the radar in ‘02 and ‘06. I didn’t get invited to either of the orientation camps. I did go to the World Cup in ‘04, so I was involved there still, for a little bit. But in ‘06, I was one of the only guys from the World Cup team that didn’t go to that training camp. That was hard, but I don’t think I ever really let it bother me and maybe I used it as a little bit of an incentive. You know, like, ‘Wait a second, I’m not done with this game yet. I can still do some things,’ and really started to figure it out.”

Limited by injury to 64 games in 2007-08, Langenbrunner had reached 20-or-more goals three times in his previous 10 seasons. But his offensive game has since blossomed alongside linemates Travis Zajac and Zach Parise, who was also named to Team USA and will serve as an alternate captain.

“From a numbers standpoint, I’ve always been a guy that’s played up and down the lineup and that may have hurt numbers a little bit,” Langenbrunner said. “But I think it was learning how to play this game and having confidence in yourself that you can do it. You can get on yourself to where you’re your own worst enemy sometimes and I think I’ve done a better job of not doing that.”

Parise erupted for 45 goals and 94 points in 2008-09, when the “ZZ Pops” line spent the majority of the season together. Individually talented, Langenbrunner, Parise and Zajac become much more than the sum of their parts as a three-man unit.

Ironically, their selfless approach to the game has seen their personal totals balloon.

“There’s been something that’s definitely clicked for us,” Langenbrunner said. “We played together a bit before that years ago when they were both really young, then had a little time away from each other. We get each other, we understand what makes the other person successful on the line, where they like to be, and how they like to play the game.

“I think the biggest thing though, is that we don’t worry about who does what. We’re all willing to be the guy to sacrifice, to drive the net, to open the lane up, or the guy to take the hit for the play to be made. We really work off each other well that way. That’s the biggest key. We’re all very unselfish when it comes to that.”

Langenbrunner, a native of Cloquet, Minn., admits to putting pressure on himself to perform – something that can become counterproductive during a cold streak. Developing a deeper trust in his own abilities has gotten his game to where it is today.

“I’ve learned the mental part of the game a little bit more as far as getting myself in the right place mentally, and I’ve had help with that from (former Devils massage therapist) Juergen Merz, who I speak with quite often and that’s been a big help in my time here,” he explained. “As far as the change, I don’t know. I think it’s just been a progression. It takes some guys longer to get it.”

His personal view of success, however, isn’t based solely on statistics.

“I expect a lot of myself and it isn’t always the numbers,” he said. “I think I’ve learned that you can play a good game and not put up numbers. That’s growing in the game, understanding the importance of all the different roles on the team and embracing that.”

One of those roles is that of captain, a position that Langenbrunner earned with the Devils in 2007-08. He missed the first 17 games to recover from a groin injury, and was named the eighth captain in team history on Dec. 5, 2007.

Rising to that challenge has helped groom him for the job with Team USA.

“It’s definitely a part of it, no question,” he said. “I doubt if you’re not captain of your team you’re going to be thought of as captain of (Team USA). That’s something that definitely added to it and something that when I first was named, I struggled with a little bit. My first year (as Devils captain) wasn’t great and I wasn’t really comfortable in that role, but I’ve grown into it and feel comfortable being in that situation.”

Langenbrunner was selected by Dallas in the second round, 35th overall, in the 1993 Entry Draft. He got into two games with the Stars in 1994-95, then another 12 in 1995-96, the same season that Joe Nieuwendyk arrived in Dallas via trade from Calgary.

Langenbrunner later played alongside Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko in New Jersey, but points to his early days with Nieuwendyk as the time that taught him the meaning of leadership.

“He’s one that, from early in my career, took me under his wing,” Langenbrunner said. “I watched in the way he treated people and the way he wasn’t necessarily the captain in Dallas but was usually one of the assistants. He was always a leader and somebody that I looked up to.”

Langenbrunner and Nieuwendyk landed together in New Jersey following the deal that shipped Jason Arnott and Randy McKay to Dallas. Having won a Stanley Cup together with the Stars in 1999 (and Nieuwendyk taking Conn Smythe honors as playoff MVP), the pair went on to hoist the Cup as Devils in 2003.

A look back at New Jersey’s third title team shows a roster loaded with respected leaders. Stevens, the Devils’ longtime captain, entered the Hall of Fame in 2007. Scott Niedermayer went on to serve as captain of Anaheim’s 2007 championship, and was chosen to wear the “C” for Team Canada’s 2010 Olympic squad. Patrik Elias, the Devils’ all-time leading scorer, will serve as captain of the 2010 Czech team.

Yet, it’s hardly a coincidence that past Devils success had been shaped by character veterans.

“The first thing is what this organization’s about, and that’s Team First,” Langenbrunner said. “Putting the team ahead of yourself and individual things. I think it also has to do with the type of people that Lou (Lamoriello, Devils' general manager) brings into the team. He respects certain guys and certain guys with leadership-type qualities. That’s the guys they draft, and the guys they bring in.”

Now Langenbrunner’s name fits right in with that impressive list, one of the NHL's top American forwards after years of being left out of the Olympic conversation.

And he's ready to make the most of it.

“I’ve been a player that’s been a part of some great teams and played a lot of different roles on those teams and had some personal success on those teams, but to be singled out as the captain is definitely something that’s an honor and something I’m going to take very seriously,” he said. “I’m very excited to be a part of this group and this opportunity is a great honor. To be named one of the leaders just adds to that.”
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