As Red Wings center Dylan Larkin prepares for the 2019 IIHF World Championship starting Friday in Slovakia, he's grateful for all the things he's been able to take away from each of his four previous experiences with the U.S. men's national team, but maybe none more so than the relationship he's been able to build with head coach Jeff Blashill because of them.
"This is our third time here together and four years in Detroit and, before I say anything else, I don't think I'd be the player I am today without him and I can say that with complete confidence," Larkin said. "I've never told him that, but it's true. There have been so many days where he's brought me into the office or pulled me aside on the bench and pointed out different things about my game and what I could do better. I'm thankful to have a coach who's really personable and wants me to be a better player and a better person and I really can't thank him enough for everything he's done to help me.
"In saying that, our first year here together was…different," he continued with a smile. "It was my third time and his first. So, he really leaned on me a lot more than he ever did those first two years in Detroit about the logistics of things and how practices or travel worked and he was always asking me questions. Because it was my third year, I was one of the more experienced guys, which is weird to say because I was only 20, but he saw me as one of the leaders on the team and even chose me to be an assistant captain and because of all that talking -- even about things outside of the game -- that tournament is when we really got to know each other.
"It was a really great opportunity for us too because I didn't have the year I wanted to have that season and wasn't very confident in my game. There were so many lessons that he taught me and we've talked about and we've argued about and there's been times he's told me things I didn't like to hear, but maybe I needed to hear it and there's been times we've definitely disagreed. So working through that and understanding it and then being able to come out the other side and have the opportunity at the world championship together and maybe see each other in a different light was huge for us. We're just so much more comfortable with each other."
According to Blashill, it's the benefit of having shared experiences.
"I think like any relationship, especially in tight quarters in highly competitive situations like it is at the world championship, it grows through your experiences together and sometimes it's hard and there are conversations you don't want to have and there's pushing each other, sometimes in uncomfortable ways, and we've just been through lots of different situations together and I think I'm a better coach and he's a better player because of them," he said. "Certainly the time that we spent together with this national team has been able to put him in situations that we then use the next year in Detroit, whether it was as a leader, whether it was as a center, whether it was as a bumper on the power play, and I think that's been a real positive for each of us as individuals, for Team USA and for the Detroit Red Wings."
This will be Larkin's fifth world championship, but he's also worn the USA Hockey crest at the U-18 and world junior championships and he's cherished every single opportunity.
"You're playing with good players and everyone's making plays and I just love it," the 22-year-old said. "Even the atmosphere with the fans from other countries beating the drums until the very last minute, even if their team is losing 8-3. It's just a lot of fun. Plus, I love getting to meet new players and make new friends and then the next time you're across the ice from them in the NHL, you just give a little nod to say hi. We're all just so proud to be American and be here and hopefully win a gold medal for our country."
He also likes the confidence it gives him going into the offseason, the camaraderie with other players as well as the opportunity to end the season on a high note.
"Every year, I've taken away something different, whether it's confidence or learning to play in a checking role or the experience of playing with different players," Larkin said. "I just just love the game and I love playing, this year especially, I think it's been the best team I've been a part of -- at least on paper. We still have a lot to prove, but I love the game and I love the guys that are over here and I love the USA hockey family -- (the coaches and the trainers and the equipment guys and the rest of the staff) and, I'm a hockey player. I like playing at a high level like this and extending my season and having the chance to finish on a good note. I think it really sets me up for a great summer of training."
This season, Larkin had a career best in goals (32) and points (73) for the Red Wings and in the last three world championships, Larkin has averaged a point per game with 30 points in 30 games.
Just like in Detroit, Blashill will rely on him to contribute offensively once again for Team USA, but also win face-offs, play well in the defensive zone and compete hard on pucks.
"I want him to do what he does every time he plays hockey and that's lead by example," Blashill said. "He plays so, so hard every shift and competes like crazy. His best attribute lots of people say is his speed. I don't think so. His best attribute is his competitiveness. He's one of those guys that uses his competitiveness as a skill. And it's hard to separate yourself from the compete standpoint. It's got to be extraordinary and he's got extraordinary compete."
For Larkin, having the chance to work a little more with Blashill is a bonus, although at this point, he says they don't even need to say anything anymore. They both just know what the other is thinking.
"We've been together for so long that we both know the player that I can be and the player that I still want to become. So, I'd say we just have to keep communicating, but at this point, we don't really need to talk a whole lot," Larkin explained. "We know we're both on the same page and we both want to win together whether that's here or in Detroit … hopefully both.
"I've just got a lot of respect for him," he continued. "He's so good at sending his message in an honest way, but doesn't cross the line or take someone's confidence. Even when he's telling you you did something wrong, he's building you up.
"Like I said, I've been really lucky to have him as my coach. I wouldn't be the player I am today without him and while I wish we were competing for a Stanley Cup, I'm also really glad we've had these opportunities at the world championship to grow closer and have a better relationship. It's been really great."
USA will start the tournament against the host country, Slovakia, on Friday at 2:15pm ET on NHL Network.