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Stars forward Benn played way onto Canada

by Corey Masisak

NEW YORK -- When the roster for Canada Olympic orientation camp was announced before the 2013-14 NHL season, Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn found out where he was in his country's pecking order. There were 25 forwards invited to the camp in Calgary, and Benn was not one of them.

When the roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympics was announced Tuesday in Toronto, Benn found out how far he's come. There were 14 forwards named to the team tasked with defending the gold medal, and Benn was among them.

"It was a little bit of disappointment. I felt like I deserved at least to get an invite, but Team Canada is not an easy team to make," Benn said of not getting a camp invite. "There was a lot of great players who got invited to that camp. It was a tough decision for Hockey Canada to make and it just gave me a little more motivation for this year."

Though Benn didn't get to spend a couple of days this fall playing ball hockey, he has spent the past couple of months proving he's one of the top forwards in the NHL. In his first season as captain of the Stars, Benn has 15 goals and 37 points in 42 games.

He's transitioned into a more prominent leadership role and shifted back to wing seamlessly after a couple of seasons at center. He can offer Canada a package of size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds), skating ability, skill and versatility, and that earned him a spot in place of players with longer track records at the NHL and international levels.

"Coming into Dallas and not knowing a lot about Jamie and not really watching him play a lot but putting him in the position we put him in, making him the captain of the team, he's really risen to the occasion," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think what [Canada general manager Steve Yzerman] and his group have done along with the coaches is really make sure the guys who were taken are going to fit in certain roles and will have a good responsibility over there."

Benn is a driving force behind the League's breakout line of the 2013-14 season. One of his linemates, 18-year-old Russian rookie Valeri Nichushkin, will be in Sochi after earning a spot on the host country's roster.

Nichushkin has been very productive playing on Dallas' top line after a bit of a slow start to his NHL career, and he could be a key depth player for Russia in Sochi.

"I'm not surprised," Ruff said. "I said a couple weeks ago when I went through the number of Russian forwards, now I don't know a lot about a few of the KHL forwards, but when I went through the number here and the people who he's up against and the way he's progressing, the way he's skating and his size (6-4, 205) alone that he could handle the physical [part] and maybe dominate in some situations down low, you don't look at him like he's an 18-year-old. They've obviously watched him closely and seen the same progression I've been seeing.

"I really think it is deserved. It wasn't something that was given to him. It is a spot that I think he earned and that he ended up winning from some other players who were very close to making that team."

The other member of the Dallas trio, center Tyler Seguin, came from even further outside the Hockey Canada discussion to the fringes of possibly making the team but was not ultimately among the 25 picked Tuesday. Seguin has a Stars-high 21 goals and 41 points in his first season since a trade from the Boston Bruins.

"I was hoping we could do it together," Benn said. "We've obviously grown a pretty good relationship together since Day One that we met in Dallas. I know his name was getting tossed around and still is. You're not sure if guys are going to get injured in the next month or so. It would be cool if we could play together on Team Canada one day."

A third member of the Stars will be joining Benn and Nichushkin. Kari Lehtonen has cemented his status as one of the top goaltenders in the League while also being able to stay healthier than he did earlier in his career. He earned one of the three coveted spots on Finland's roster, along with Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins and Antti Niemi of the San Jose Sharks.

"I've done some good things the last maybe three, four years," Lehtonen said. "Being on the Olympic team is a huge honor, being in the Finnish team especially with the way goaltending right now is really good. There's probably six, seven, eight guys that could play there easily. To be one of the three guys is really exciting."

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