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Team USA has a 'Pure Michigan' feel this year

by Brian Hedger / Special to

COLOGNE, Germany - It doesn't take much to notice a trend on the U.S. roster at the 2017 IIHF World Championship. Looking at the hometowns of both players and coaches, one state sticks out like a sore thumb, so to speak. It's the one that has a thumb, otherwise known as the "mitten state" of Michigan.

The U.S. has five players from Michigan, including Red Wings Dylan Larkin and Danny DeKeyser. There are also two players, Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard and Colorado Avalanche forward J.T. Compher (University of Michigan), who established ties to the state by moving there.

The links don't end there. Three coaches have Michigan in their background, including Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill - who's running Team USA's bench.

"It just speaks to the level of hockey that's in Michigan," said Blashill, who's from Sault Ste. Marie, played at Ferris State and coached at Western Michigan. "There's certainly great hockey throughout the United States now. It's not restricted to the areas it once was, but I think it says that Michigan's still doing a good job developing players, and certainly I take pride in that."

He's got company in that department. Lots of it, in fact.

Michigan pride is alive and well on Team USA, from Cheboygan (video coordinator Adam Nightingale) to Detroit (Dekeyser) to Commerce (Winnipeg Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck).

In-state collegiate rivalries and bonds are too.

Nightingale played his final two seasons of college hockey at Michigan State, while Larkin, Jacob Trouba and Andrew Copp all played for Michigan. Assistant coach Seth Appert and Blashill were goalies at Ferris State.

"It's pretty cool, because you instantly have some connections and something to talk about," said Hellebuyck, who is teammates in Winnipeg with fellow Michiganders Andrew Copp and Jacob Trouba. "We're not just proud to be from our country, but we're also proud of what state we're from too. Being from Michigan … it's a big deal."

That's partially for bragging rights around a locker room filled with guys from hockey hotbeds in other states, but also because it's proof the state's youth programs are excelling.

Trouba and Copp have played together since they were 10, climbing the ranks together from youth programs to the U.S. National Team Development Program to the University of Michigan to Winnipeg and now to the world championship.

They're also roommates during this tournament.

"We've always played on the same teams growing up, at Compuware and then USNTD, and then Michigan … and now we're in Winnipeg," Copp said, laughing. "I guess we can't get rid of each other."

Trouba, who's from Rochester, and Copp, who's from Ann Arbor, also helped one of their Compuware teams win a national championship. Among those who were watching them closely was Larkin, who was in a younger age group.

He remembers that championship run and how it made him want to follow in their footsteps - which he did by playing for Michigan in college.

"You hear those two names [Trouba and Copp], and they had a powerhouse (Compuware) team and won a few national championships. Obviously, both went onto the U.S. National program, and that's something you want to follow. You see those guys, and you want to take the same paths. You want to follow them."

The same can be said about this group of Michiganders, whose presence on this U.S. roster might light the path to the top for somebody else. Larkin doesn't take that possibility lightly, because he was on the other end of it not long ago.

"You look at (AAA) hockey in Michigan, and there's a lot of good players that come out," said Larkin, who played for Belle Tire. "I think you could actually have more here that couldn't make it or had family stuff going on. Most of us are here at a pretty young age, which is exciting that there's still players from Michigan who are going onto the next level. Everyone seems to have a different path, and we're setting the paths for kids to follow."

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