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Wings' Jeff Blashill ready to lead Team USA in IIHF world championship

Danny DeKeyser, Jimmy Howard and Dylan Larkin will play for their coach on Team USA

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji / DetroitRedWings.com

DETROIT - It isn't just players who get excited about representing their country in international competitions. Coaches are as well.

That includes Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who is leaving this weekend for Italy, where he will meet up with the rest of Team USA as they prepare for the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation Men's World Championship.

"It's one of the neatest things in life to be able to represent your country, to represent the USA," Blashill said in his office at Joe Louis Arena. "I'm proud to be from the U.S. and the opportunity to represent the U.S. is awesome. It does bring you a chance to really grow as a coach because you get to see different people, different ideas. You learn from your players, you learn from the other coaching staffs so it's an excellent growth opportunity as well."

The tournament takes place May 5-21 in Cologne, Germany and Paris, France.

Fortunately for Blashill, there are three players he will already know when he arrives as forward Dylan Larkin, defenseman Danny DeKeyser and goaltender Jimmy Howard were all invited to play.

"Before I ever got this job, I called USA Hockey to say I thought Jimmy deserved an opportunity to represent the U.S.," Blashill said. "I knew he wanted to go over and I think he's got his game in a real good place."

Howard was limited to 26 games due to a groin injury that kept him out from Nov. 26-Dec. 6 and then a knee injury that forced him to miss 32 games from Dec. 23-March 8.

Although the roster is not finalized yet, Blashill has been learning about the other players on the team.

"First of all, it's a good group of players," Blashill said. "I tried to do as much research as I can, both myself and our staff, of the players. One, talking to them personally but two, talking to their coaches, talking to people that have had them, try to just find out as much as we can, how to communicate best with them, spots to put them on the ice, situations to put them in to get the most out of each guy. Then we'll learn as we go. But it should be a great experience."

One of the most interesting players on the roster is Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau, who is just 5-foot-9, 157 pounds, yet is already a two-time All-Star.

"One of the great separators in the NHL, I believe, is hockey sense and he's got hockey sense off the charts," Blashill said. "I've known him as a young player for a long time. I've seen him play for a long time. At every level, he proved people wrong and he continues to do that. He's got hockey sense, he's got big-time ability. Really, really pumped to get the opportunity to coach him. I love guys with hockey sense and he's got that in spades."

There are five players from the state of Michigan, including Larkin, DeKeyser, goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (Commerce), defenseman Jacob Trouba (Rochester) and forward Andrew Copp (Ann Arbor).

Hellebuyck, Trouba and Copp all play for the Winnipeg Jets.

Blashill will also be working with assistant coaches Jack Capuano, Rand Pecknold and Seth Appert, along with video coordinator Adam Nightingale. "Jack Capuano and I know each other but not well," Blashill said. "This will be the first time we've worked together, probably the first time we've really talked hockey together. I've really enjoyed it so far. He's a very smart hockey guy, he's a very, very good person. I think he's somebody that when you're together for three weeks like this, you got to be able to enjoy each other. I think we'll enjoy each other's company. I think one of the best things about going to these types of things is being with different people and seeing how they do things. So it'll be great to see the approach that Jack takes and to learn from him."

The other four coaches are people that Blashill already has a connection with in the small world of hockey.

"Rand Pecknold is somebody that I actually had in here last summer with our staff to go over some philosophies and things like that so I know Rand a little bit better, I've known him for a number of years in college," Blashill said. "He's an excellent, excellent coach. I think he's going to bring some different ideas as well and it'll be good to see how he teaches. Then just to round out the staff, Seth Appert is our goalie coach and head of our pre-scouting. Seth and I were goalie partners at Ferris (State) so we know each other for a long, long time so it'll be lots of fun to work together. We've never had a chance to work together. Adam Nightingale is the current video coach at Buffalo, he does an excellent job. He's somebody that I actually recruited when I was at Ferris. He didn't come but I recruited him when I was at Ferris so I've known him a long time. Again, excellent reputation and excellent guy."

In a short tournament like this, Blashill believes the more good players you have, the better chance for success.

"I think developing chemistry and getting on the same page real fast are two real important things so we got to make sure that as soon as we land, our guys are doing a good job of bonding and developing chemistry," Blashill said. "On the ice we need to develop chemistry. Then we need to pick certain things that are core, I guess, systems and core approaches of how we're going to play and make sure we get real good at those and build our game over time. You don't have lots of practice time, you don't have lots of time to teach so let's pick a few things, let's get real good at those and then let the players utilize their skills."

One of the challenges of international competition is adjusting to the larger ice surface. Blashill has consulted quite a few coaches on the topic.

"For the most part, everybody says stick to your game and stick to the way you want to play," Blashill said. "You may have to make tweaks as you go along but don't change the systems that you like to play, don't change the way you coach, don't overthink it. Play hockey the way you want to play hockey and then make tweaks as need be.

"I think the biggest thing is from a defensive standpoint, the width of the ice is further away from the net so at times you can let players sit out there. From an offensive standpoint, you can't be satisfied with being on the outside because there's lots of room on the outside. You still got to get inside the dots. I think the dots are still the key to the ice. You want to play defense from the dots out and offensively you got to get inside the dots."

The 16 teams are divided into two pools, Group A and Group B.

Group A includes the United States, Russia, Sweden, Slovakia, Germany, Latvia, Denmark and Italy.

Group B includes Canada, Finland, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Belarus, Norway, France and Slovenia.

"We're going to Milan, Italy for kind of a training camp, which is three days or so, then our pool is in Cologne, Germany," Blashill said. "Then the finals are actually in Cologne, Germany so we hope to stay in Cologne the whole time. That'll depend on our seeding and the crossover. Depending on your seeding, the other city is Paris, France, so we'll either stay in Cologne or go to Paris."

Blashill has never been to either city so he's looking forward to seeing a few things when his wife, Erica, arrives.

"My wife will join us the second half of the tournament," Blashill said. "So she'll come over for the second half and she's never been over there either so it'll be a real cool experience for us."

Blashill may be up for some sightseeing but his main objective remains the world championship.

"We're going there to win," Blashill said. "I think our team's good enough to win and that's our focus going over there. We want to enjoy the experience, the experience of playing in a world championship is an awesome thing. But our focus is to go over there and win."

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