VANCOUVER, B.C. - Most Western Hockey League players haven't taken a single shift in the NHL, or played against the world's brightest superstars on Olympic ice.
Luca Sbisa is one of the exceptions. A little over a month after playing for Switzerland in the 2010 Winter Games, the talented 20-year-old defenceman is back in Vancouver, chasing a Memorial Cup title with the Portland Winterhawks in a second-round Western Hockey League playoff series against the Giants.
"(Playing in the Olympics is) something that I would have never dreamt of a couple years ago," said Sbisa, who was born in Ozieri, Italy, but moved near the Swiss city of Zug as an infant.
"Any athlete, no matter what sport you play, you want to represent your country in the Olympics. For me, doing that at my age was pretty special ... It was great to be in that tournament and just an Olympic atmosphere."
Sbisa started this season with the Anaheim Ducks, playing eight games after being acquired in the deal that sent star defenceman Chris Pronger to Philadelphia.
He played 39 games with the Flyers last season after they took him with their first pick in the 2008 NHL draft, but was returned to junior late in the campaign.
"I would have never expected to be (in the NHL) at my age," said Sbisa. "I came over here as a 17 year old. No one knew me, I wasn't ranked on any draft list, and then on the first round, I made the team as a 19 year old. Everything went so fast, but it was a great experience for me."
The memorable moments continued. He suited up for his homeland at the 2010 world junior championship, where he only played two games due to injury.
He was then invited to play in the Olympics, where he logged just over 85 minutes of ice time in five games.
Portland general manager and coach Mike Johnston, who acquired Sbisa from the Lethbridge Hurricanes at the WHL trade deadline, said the youngster has not displayed an air of superiority after playing at such an elite level.
"He played against Canada and the U.S. in the Olympics, and now he's back playing in our league," Johnston said. "Some guys would have a letdown. Some guys wouldn't have the same focus and that same drive. I call him a professional because he is a professional. He's an example of a typical pro player."
Johnston, a former Vancouver Canucks assistant, said Sbisa plays, trains and looks like a pro, setting a positive example for younger players who have not yet developed a pre-game routine. But Sbisa said he had to overcome the disappointment of not meeting his No. 1 goal of sticking in the NHL this season - and it was not easy to return to junior after the Olympics.
"You play on the biggest stage and you've got that taste you can play at that high level against all those tough players," he said.
"So you kind of want to go back to the NHL instead of juniors, right? It was tough the first one or two weeks I was back in juniors - to get focused again, to get motivated again - but then playoffs came up. So it doesn't really matter where you play now. It's always the highlight. Now, my head is here. It's not anywhere else."
Sbisa proved that Wednesday as he scored the winning goal in Portland's 3-2 victory over the Giants in Game 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series. The Winterhawks trail 2-1 in the best-of-seven series heading into Friday's fourth game at the Pacific Coliseum.