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Sbisa's odyssey took him from juniors to Olympics

by Adam Kimelman

Luca Sbisa entered the 2009-10 season not really knowing where he might end up playing.

There was a shot at making the NHL with the Anaheim Ducks. If that didn't work he would end up back in junior hockey with the Lethbridge Hurricanes of the Western Hockey League. In that case there would be a chance he would be able to play for his native Switzerland at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship. And then there was the faraway goal of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

So where did Sbisa play that season? The answer is all of the above.

Since NHL players started going to the Olympics, only Sbisa and Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin in 2006 have represented their countries in the World Junior Championship and the Olympics in the same season. Malkin, though, didn’t add a stop in the NHL that season.

Only Luca Sbisa and Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin in 2006 have represented their countries in the World Junior Championship and the Olympics in the same season. (Photo: Getty Images)

"I played in every league possible," Sbisa told "NHL, WHL, World Juniors, Olympics. … I just enjoyed it. I knew it's not a normal thing … to experience what I did. I just took it one day at a time. I had a lot of fun."

Sbisa's itinerant hockey journey started at Ducks training camp. Acquired in June 2009 in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers, Sbisa said he expected to spend the season in the NHL. Taken by the Flyers with the 19th pick of the 2008 NHL Draft, he played 43 games with the Flyers in 2008-09 before being returned to his junior team, and he was a big part of the return the Ducks got when they traded Chris Pronger to Philadelphia.

But after going without a point in eight games and averaging 12:37 of ice time per game, he was sent to Lethbridge to continue his development.

"I had played at the highest level possible," Sbisa said. "I wasn't happy they had sent me back to junior that year [but] I took that as extra motivation to make the Olympic team and play hockey at that level to show the Ducks that they should have kept me. That was my mentality going in."

Skating against players his own age, Sbisa excelled with 13 points in 17 games. In December he was named captain of Switzerland's team for the World Juniors, which was held in Saskatoon and Regina, Saskatchewan.

"I knew I was going to have a big role on that team," Sbisa said. "They made me captain, which was cool. I had never been captain of a team other than playing as a 12-year-old."

Although Switzerland made a stunning run to the bronze-medal game, Sbisa wasn't around to enjoy it. He tore an oblique muscle in the third game and was sent back to Switzerland to rest and recover.

"We thought the Olympics would be in jeopardy," he said. "Usually it will take six weeks for something like a torn oblique. They said you've got to go back home, see your specialist, start your rehab right way [so] I went to Switzerland. Two days after I got injured and they gave us the diagnosis I sat down with the coach, talked about what the best thing was. They said go back home, see the national team's doctor and just try to get back as soon as possible. We want you to be on the Olympic team so make sure you get healthy."

Sbisa was ready to go after a month away, but when he returned to the WHL it was with the Portland Winterhawks, who had acquired him from Lethbridge.


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He got into six games with his new team before leaving again. However, he got an unwanted going-away present.

"The last game before I went to the Olympics I broke my [right] fibula," Sbisa said. "But I didn't know it was broken at the time. I just wanted to play so bad."

Despite any pain he might have been feeling, Sbisa played all five games, had seven shots on goal and averaged 17:03 of ice time, third among the team's defensemen behind Mark Streit (26:58) and Severin Blindenbacher (21:15).

"I remember he was still young but he played really solid hockey, good hockey. Like a veteran almost," Streit told "He knew how to play defense and was a great puck mover. He's big and strong so he can play physical. He has the whole package. The first Olympics for him. I was impressed.

"He hadn't been on the national team before. He got in and felt comfortable right away. He had good confidence, which was really important, and he was a really nice guy that worked hard and he listened. It was a really fun tournament to play, to get to know him better."

Sbisa said being around older players on his team like Streit and Hnat Domenichelli, who had extensive NHL experience, was one of the best parts of the Olympic experience for him.

"I just tried to be like a sponge, picking up a lot of things," Sbisa said. "I was kind of like in dream land. … It was a special thing to be on that team. We played really good hockey there. We had a few close games; we lost against Canada in the shootout. I think I had the same mindset as everyone else -- we got nothing to lose, just go out there and have fun, and I think we played some pretty good hockey."

When the Olympics ended Sbisa returned to Portland and had four points in 13 WHL playoff games. It was a lot of hockey, and when the season ended he was exhausted. But his Olympic experience is one he wouldn't trade.

"I went to the Olympics," he said. "That was probably the best experience I've had so far."

Now he's looking forward to having another memorable Olympic experience. He missed the first month of this season recovering from a sprained ankle sustained in the Ducks' first preseason game. In six games he has one assist and a minus-3 rating while averaging 17:39 of ice time per game, but he'll likely have a large role on the blue line for the team that goes to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

After winning the silver medal at the 2013 IIHF World Championship, Sbisa knows Switzerland won't be able to fly under the radar like it did four years ago in Vancouver.

"In the past four years things have changed a little bit," he said. "We've gotten stronger, bigger. You can tell just by the [international] rankings that we've made a couple steps forward in our development. I think this Olympics coming up we won't be that underdog any more. We'll be someone that everyone is prepared to play every time because we're pretty unpredictable."

Sbisa also hopes all the information he sponged up in Vancouver will help him make a bigger impact in Sochi.

"Just play freely," he said. "Don't think because it's the big stage or you're playing this team or that team that you've got to change anything in your game. That's how I approach going into camp and how I approach every game."


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