|Stars winger James Neal suffered an injury during the IIHF International Ice Hockey World Championships in Zurich on April 29, 2009, which cut his experience short. |
With the best hockey nations icing teams consisting primarily of NHL players whose squads did not make the playoffs, along with a few whose clubs will be eliminated in the first round and some playing in Europe, the World Championships is a prestigious tournament eclipsed only by the Winter Olympics and World Cup of Hockey as a true barometer of hockey world supremacy.
It is usually a much bigger deal in Europe and even in Canada than it typically is in the United States, since the majority of hockey fans here are focusing on the ongoing NHL playoffs. But even so, most players view a request to participate in such a high-profile tournament as a cherished honor and welcome the chance to wear their national team’s jersey.
“I think it’s a great experience just to play a tournament like that with all of the good players,” said defenseman Nicklas Grossman, who represented Sweden in last year’s tournament and brought home a bronze medal. “It’s a fun experience, too, especially last year - I had a blast. We finished third last year, got a bronze medal. It was fun. I think if you can play hockey longer with the situation we’re in - we didn’t make the playoffs - I think it’s a good thing. You get the season to go a little longer.”
That’s why it was so difficult for Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas
to tell Team Canada’s management team that he wouldn’t be able to make it for the tournament that starts May 7 in Germany.
“I’ve been asked and I won’t be able to go,” said Robidas, who has suited up for Canada in the Worlds before, in 2001 and 2006. “I’m a little bit banged up right now. I got a sore shoulder and a little bit of hip, and groin, and I had to decline the offer. Obviously, I would have loved to be able to play in it. I’ve been part of two teams that went over there and it’s always nice to get a chance to represent your country, but I think for me, it’s time to recover and see what we need to do with those injuries.”
A couple of marquee Dallas forwards also had to tell Team Canada, ‘thanks but no thanks.’
“I’ve already been approached about it. I’m a little bit banged up, so I’m not going to compete this year,” said captain Brenden Morrow
, who skated for Canada at the Olympics in February and in four previous World Championships. “It’s been a long year and I’m a little bit banged up.”
“No, I’m not going,” added center Brad Richards who led the Stars in scoring while matching his career-high with 91 points this year. “I’ve got some health things I’m going to get taken care of, and get some rest.”
While Richards declined to disclose the nature of his injury, Morrow, who sat out two of the final three games of the regular season due to a foot problem, revealed that he actually had a ‘small fracture’ in the foot, but he expected it to heal just fine.
Other Stars that opted against playing in Germany despite being asked are veteran winger Jere Lehtinen, who informed Team Finland he wouldn’t be participating, and defenseman Karlis Skrastins, who had to say ‘sorry’ to Team Latvia.
Grossman was also offered a spot on Sweden’s roster but first had to sort out whether or not he would still be covered by his expiring contract. He will become a restricted free agent this summer, and noted he had to address that issue before accepting.
“They asked me, I’m not sure yet,” said the third-year blueliner, who recorded one assist in nine games last year. “I’ve got to straighten some things out contract-wise. But I would love to play. It’s an honor to go and play for the national team.”
There was some speculation that Team USA was going to invite center Toby Petersen
, but with the tournament still three weeks away, that hasn’t been determined yet. Meanwhile, second-year winger James Neal, who finished second on the Stars with 27 goals this season, was hoping to get another call from Team Canada after skating for them last year.
“I haven’t really heard anything. If I’m asked, I’ll go and play for sure,” said Neal, who registered a goal and two assists, along with a +4 plus/minus rating, in three games in the 2009 tournament before suffering an eye injury. “Last year it was short because of the injury, but anytime you can represent your country, it’s an honor. When you don’t make the playoffs and you still have a chance to play, you want to. It’s always a good experience, going overseas and playing. It’ll be fun if the opportunity comes again.”
In addition to Neal and Grossman, other Stars who played in last year’s Worlds were winger Loui Eriksson
for Sweden, Skrastins for Latvia, and defenseman Matt Niskanen for Team USA.
For younger players like Neal, Grossman and Eriksson, continuing their seasons at such a high level of play in a pressure-packed environment such as the World Championships was a valuable learning tool that undoubtedly helped accelerate their development.
Skrastins, who is the face of Team Latvia as their most prominent NHLer, acknowledged that he sometimes feels somewhat obligated to suit up for the national team every chance he gets, but this time he was more concerned with being as prepared as possible for next season in Dallas.
“No, not this year, I have all kinds of stuff I have to take care of,” said Skrastins, who has played in nine previous World Championships for Latvia, as well as three Olympics. “I already talked with the guys back in Latvia. They understand me, with the long season, with Olympic Games already. It’s been a long season and a tough schedule the last two or three months. Because of the Olympics, we had games every second day, it’s one of the toughest seasons schedule-wise, so I think I need a little bit of rest and get ready for next year.
“Next year is going to be big for everyone and we have to make sure we are ready from the beginning.”
Other Stars who passed on opportunities to play also cited the need to put all their efforts into gearing up for next season, determined not to miss the playoffs again.
“I’m starting to focus on next year,” Robidas said. “We need a strong start next year and we don’t want to have a third season without playoffs.”
“I’m going to get some rest and go back to training and get ready for next year,” added Richards, who played for Canada in the 2001 World Championships, the 2004 World Cup and the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
That so many Stars are so willing to skip the chance to represent their countries proves how dedicated they are to erasing the stinging disappointment of not qualifying for the playoffs. That bodes well for their prospects in 2010-11.