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Several Stars opting out of World Championships, Eriksson going

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

It may be a poor substitute for the NHL playoffs, but for players on the 14 clubs that fail to qualify, getting the chance to keep their season going while playing a highly competitive brand of hockey by representing their country at the World Championships can be a positive conclusion to a disappointing year.

For several members of the Dallas Stars, the decision on whether or not to head over to Slovakia for the international tournament from April 29-May 15 hinged primarily on their health, with most of them reluctantly turning down their offers.

Five Stars asked to join their national teams, including four with Team Canada, wound up opting out, while top-line winger Loui Eriksson was the only confirmed Dallas player to have already committed to playing.

“I just talked to them and told them I would come,” said Eriksson, who helped Team Sweden win bronze at the 2009 World Championships and also skated at the 2010 Olympics, Tuesday when the Stars dispersed for the summer. “I look forward to that, going to play for my country is going to be fun.”

For the others that turned down the chance to play, it was primarily injury issues that marked the biggest factor in their decisions.

“We’ve had four of our Canadian-born players asked - Steve Ott, Mike Ribeiro, Brenden Morrow and Jamie Benn, and Alex Goligoski with the US team,” Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk said. “I think those are great opportunities. Obviously a couple of our players are banged up. Brenden has been battling with an injury, as well as Alex Goligoski and Jamie Benn for that matter, but there’s still a little time for them to heal. I speak from experience. Any time you get an opportunity to represent your country, it’s a great opportunity. Those players are aware that they’ve been asked, they’ll consult with their agents and they’ll talk with the right people involved. It’s a terrific experience.”

Morrow would not reveal the nature of his injury, but acknowledged it was the primary reason he would not be skating for Canada.

“I’ve considered it, I’m not going to make it this year, just a lot of bumps and bruises that need some time,” said Morrow, who has played for Canada in four previous World Championships as well as the 2010 Olympics last season. “Just little things that add up, nothing serious. I’d like to get feeling healthy again soon and get back in the gym.”

Benn, who also declined to elaborate on the specifics of his injury, indicated early in the week that he was still in the process of consulting with Nieuwendyk and the club’s medical staff, but ultimately chose not to participate.

“I think I’ll just think about it for the next couple of days here,” Benn said Tuesday. “I’ll sit down and have a talk with Joe and see how the trainers feel about some stuff and then I’ll make my decision. I think it would be a good experience if I go and just another opportunity to play more hockey and get more experience.”

Ott, too, wasn’t sure if he would head overseas when the club held its exit interviews Tuesday, due to a nagging ankle issue he’d been dealing with for awhile. In the end, it was apparently determined that the surgery shouldn’t wait.

“All year, one of my ankles has been bothering me, I know I’m going to have to get that fixed,” said Ott, who actually played for Canada at last year’s tournament, recording one assist and 20 penalty minutes in seven games. I just have some bone spurs that have to be taken out from other surgeries, this will be number four on that ankle. I’ll be fine for camp and working out, it’s more for cleaning out and scoping it and making it move better again, that’s all. I can skate right now and have no pain. It didn’t really bother me, it’s more off-ice stuff, walking or running, that bothers me if you can believe that.

“Team Canada called and I had a blast with it last year and it’s kind of like playing in the post-season, but I have to figure out physically how I am after this year.”

Ribeiro was the only one of the Canadian quartet who wasn’t necessarily battling any nagging injuries, but still decided not to go.

“Probably not, I’m just too old now for that,” smiled Ribeiro, who last skated for Canada in the 2000 World Junior tournament. “They never asked me when I was 21, 22, and now they’re asking me when I’m 31? I have three kids, I think my focus would be on that and working out, getting back into shape and focusing on next year.”

Goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who played in a career-high 69 games this season while matching his previous best of 34 victories, wasn’t sure yet if he would compete for Finland in the World Championships.

“I’m sure they will call me or something, and then we’ll see,” said Lehtonen, who helped Finland win silver and was named Best Goalkeeper at the 2007 Worlds. “Right now I feel like rest would be a good thing. I played quite a lot, but still, it might change, I might feel different tomorrow.”

For Eriksson, who once again excelled in Dallas this season, scoring 27 goals and reaching career-highs with 46 assists and 73 points in 79 games, while also leading the squad with a +10 plus/minus rating, he is becoming a more prominent member of Team Sweden and will be counted upon as one of its go-to guys.

“It’s been a good year for me, playing well the whole season, it feels like, so it’s always nice to have that feeling and now I have a chance to go play some more hockey in the World Championships,” said Eriksson, who scored three goals and an assist in four Olympic games last year in Vancouver. “They know I’ve been playing real well over here, so they have some expectations on me to come there and play real well for them, too. I’m just going to go there and have some fun. It’s another chance to play some more hockey, so it’s going to be fun.”

Despite the fact that he ultimately chose not to go to Slovakia, Ott spoke about how much of a thrill he’s always experienced when playing for his homeland.

“It’s putting on your country’s jersey all the time and having the self-pride of Team Canada or Team USA or whoever, it’s just something that it’s hard to pass up the opportunity,” noted Otter, who also earned a bronze medal for Canada at the 2001 World Juniors, as well as silver in 2002. “You only have so many opportunities, especially for us if we’re going to be in the playoffs for hopefully the rest of my career, and physically, if everything checks out, I’ll be happy to go, but if not I’ll get (my ankle) fixed.”

Ott also pointed out that in addition to the benefit of keeping his season going, playing in the World Championships allows the player to continue developing his skills.

“The experience of playing top-top guys helps me improve as well,” said Ott, who totaled 12 goals and 32 points in 82 games this season. “I think my game’s still trying to grow and I’m trying to benefit myself to be a better player and when you’re playing against the best and you have that little while to improve yourself, whether it’s Brenden going to the Olympics and coming back, you can see his game has just taken off, confidence-wise, skill-wise, everything you get from it is a pretty big bonus.”

Any benefit the Stars can get from having their players continue playing, experiencing crucial situations and facing top-notch competition, will only help them next season as they hope to end the squad’s playoff drought.

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