That’s because five players, along with coach Dave Tippett, will represent their countries at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships taking place in Berne and Zurich, Switzerland from April 24 through May 10.
Winger Loui Eriksson
, center Joel Lundqvist and defenseman Nicklas Grossman will skate for Sweden, blueliner Matt Niskanen will pull on a Team USA jersey and rookie winger James Neal will suit up for Team Canada. And Tippett will serve as Associate Coach for Canada.
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 an invitation to such a high-profile tournament as an honor and welcome the chance to wear their national team’s jersey.
“I was real excited getting the call,” admitted Grossman, who also represented Sweden in the 2005 World Junior Championships (WJC). “Obviously, it will be my first time there with the (senior) national team, so I was just real excited and I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s a great experience and a big honor to just put the national jersey on.”
“It’s obviously a huge honor any time someone asks you to wear your country’s colors,” added Niskanen, who also skated for Team USA at the 2006 WJC. “It’s not quite the Olympics, but it’s kind of the pre-cursor to that. It should be a fun experience, there’s going to be a lot of good players there. Obviously, I’d much rather be playing in the playoffs right now, but it’ll be a good experience for me. I’ll get to travel, see Switzerland and play for my country.”
One of the best parts about going to the World Championships is that they get to extend their season a little longer. They can put the disappointment of missing the playoffs behind them and still have a chance to end the season on a positive note, hopefully even topping it off with a gold medal.
“Obviously, I’d like to be playing in the playoffs, but this keeps things going,” said Neal, who leaves for Europe on Friday. “It’ll be competitive and any time you can play for your country and put on the Team Canada jersey is exciting. You never want to be done with hockey.”
“It’s been a roller coaster here, and not having the playoffs, it’s kind of disappointing and empty right now,” Grossman acknowledged. “So maybe we go over there, get a good experience and finish the season off on a high note.”
“I love playing hockey, so now I get an opportunity going there and play some more hockey,” noted Eriksson, who led the Stars this season with 36 goals. “It’s going to be real fun because it’s my first time to play there. It’s like the playoffs and it’s going to be a really inspiring tournament for me just to experience. To be able to play on a big rink again, it’s going to be a little different. It’s going to be awesome, I’m looking forward to it.”
The excitement level is no different for Tippett, who also is honored to have been asked by his former boss, Team Canada General Manager Doug Armstrong, to be part of his country’s coaching staff.
“I leave for Europe on Saturday as associate coach with Team Canada, which I’m really looking forward to,” said Tippett, who skated for Canada in both the 1984 and ’92 Olympics as a player. “The head coach will be (Buffalo’s) Lindy Ruff and the other associate coach will be (Nashville’s) Barry Trotz, a very good coaching staff. I’m looking forward to just seeing different ideas, seeing different styles of play. That tournament over there is their Stanley Cup Finals, so it’s a very exciting time.”
As Eriksson stated, with the tournament being held in Europe, it will be played on the larger ice surface that is 100 feet wide instead of 85 here in North America. So the tournament will be a bit of an adjustment for NHL players, especially the US and Canadian guys who have rarely, if ever, skated on rinks with those dimensions.
“It’ll be a little bit different format, big ice, international rules,” said Niskanen. “It’ll be a good experience for me, it should help my game in the long run, I think.”
The added experience is another benefit that makes Stars management happy to see some of their younger players heading overseas. In addition to keeping them on the ice, facing elite competition, in an intense environment and with slightly different parameters to deal with, the 16-team tournament will undoubtedly serve as a valuable learning tool for them.
“Every experience a young player can have like this, especially when you have some of the best players in the world, it can only help you,” Tippett said. “And for our team in Canada, we’re taking James Neal and those experiences of playing games where every play counts, just enhances their ability to do it in the NHL, so I think it’s a great opportunity for young guys.”
“It’s good for my development and I’m looking forward to it,” said Neal, who won a gold medal with Canada’s 2007 World Junior squad. “Tip’s been great with me all year and it will be great for me to go over there with him for a couple of weeks.”
Skating in the World Championships also serves as a kind of validation for the Stars’ younger players that they have arrived as well-respected NHLers. For Neal, who scored 24 goals as a freshman, and second-year defensemen Niskanen and Grossman especially, that is high praise indeed.
“What it says is that the rest of the league, the outside hockey world, recognizes these players are really good players, on a world stage,” noted Stars associate coach Rick Wilson. “So I think it speaks volumes for our whole organization - how we recognize them, identify them, how we’re developing them, the whole thing. They’re still young, but they’re thought of as good players and being recognized in that light is a very big statement.”
With the tournament fast approaching, the five players have continued to skate together at the Stars’ Dr Pepper StarCenter practice facility in Frisco this week. Then they will leave for Switzerland and become opponents competing for, among other prizes, bragging rights in the locker room.
“I talked with them a little bit,” Eriksson said of his soon-to-be rivals Neal and Niskanen. “It’s going to be exciting to play against those guys. It’s going to be good competition there.”
“Some of the Swedish guys I talked to, I was trying to get their game plans,” Tippett joked. “There will be a few of our guys over there, it will be good to see them play.”