Dallas Stars Jamie Benn, Kari Lehtonen and Valeri Nichushkin all have played internationally, but now they’ll get a chance to play on the biggest international stage as they represent their countries at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“There’s no bigger stage for performing on,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff. “I think the focus on the number of viewers and the people watching the Olympics is well documented.”
Ruff, who is an associate coach for Canada at this year’s games, knows all about the Olympics. He was an associate coach with Canada when it won gold in Vancouver in 2010.
“It turns out to be the marquee event in the Olympics,” said Ruff. “I think it has been world class hockey. It’s not going over there and floating through a competition. It is world class competition.”
And it is pressure packed, especially in the playoff round.
“In a one-game showdown, you are feeling every play can make a difference,” said Ruff. “In a 1-1 game there is a shot on net and you are, ‘Oh God,’ because it can be a screened shot, tip shot, a shot off a skate. You don’t get a second chance in a one-game elimination. That feeling is incredible.”
And that’s the feeling Ruff, Benn, Lehtonen and Nichushkin will experience starting this week in Sochi. It’s an experience that Ruff believes will benefit his Dallas players.
“They’ll learn from this experience,” he said. “They get to learn from the best players in the world, see them work. I really believe you come away from there a better player.”
Benn, who didn’t receive an invitation to Canada’s orientation camp in the summer, made his case for a roster spot with a strong showing over the first half of the season with the Stars. He’s no stranger to international play. He won a gold medal with Canada at the 2009 World Junior Championship and suited up for Canada at the 2012 World Championship. This time it will be on the big international stage.
“I’m obviously very excited to get over there and just be part of the whole Olympics in general,” Benn said. “Of course, to put on this jersey and represent your country in such a big event, I’m definitely excited and honored for the opportunity.”
He’ll be part of a Canadian team that will be defending the gold medal it won at the 2010 games in Vancouver, defeating the United States on Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal in the championship game.
“I [watched in 2010],” Benn said. “Obviously, because Brenden (Morrow) was a part of it and being a part of the Dallas Stars as well, I tuned in to every game and obviously it was very exciting and dramatic, the way it finished with Sid’s goal. Hopefully I can be a part of that again this year and bring home the gold again.”
Lehtonen has played several times internationally for Finland, winning a gold medal at the U18 World Championship in 2000, silver at the 2001 World Junior Championship, bronze medals at the 2002 and 2003 World Juniors and silver at the 2007 World Championship. Now, he gets a chance to make a mark at the Olympics.
“I’m proud of all the work that I’ve put in and just excited. I try to stay calm when I get there and do the best I can. It’s the same game. I just need to do what I’ve been doing here and I should be fine,” Lehtonen said. “It’s been a dream well from since I was a little kid. Watched the Olympics and was thinking it’d be pretty nice to be there one day. Now I’m excited to be part of it.”
Finland has some of the strongest goaltending in Sochi with Lehtonen, Boston’s Tuukka Rask and San Jose’s Antti Niemi. Rask is considered the favorite to be the No. 1 guy, but time will tell how things shake out.
“Tuukka has been tremendous the last two seasons, really has played well. So has Antti,” Lehtonen said. “It’s going to be exciting. I don’t know where or what will be my spot when I go there. I’m just going to be happy to be part of it and if I get to play, even better. That’s my mindset.”
Although he is only 18, Nichushkin is no stranger to international play. He played for Russia at the 2013 U18 World Championship and the 2013 World Junior Championship, scoring in overtime to give Russia a 6-5 victory over Canada in the bronze medal game. Landing a spot on Russia’s Olympic roster at his age is impressive.
“As my kids would say, that’s way cool,” said Ruff. “Just think about it, 18 and you get a chance to compete on the world stage for your country, in your country and just to be chosen because there are a lot of good Russian players. There’s a lot of good Russian players in the KHL, even our former NHL players that are still playing there and to be chosen over some of the players that have been here and maintained a pretty high level of play, it speaks volumes about where this young man is at and where he can get to.”
Ruff sees benefits for Nichushkin, Benn and Lehtonen playing in the Olympics. It’s an opportunity to play in high pressure situations at the highest level against the best players in the world. Benn has never played in the playoffs in the NHL. Lehtonen has two NHL playoff games under his belt. Nichushkin is getting a big test early in his career.
“I just think that even if you don’t play a lot, it’s an unbelievable experience,” Ruff said. “You get to be around the best players in the game, the best players in the world and how they prepare. That experience alone can make you a better player.”
“It’s going to be a good experience for me,” said Benn. “Obviously, there’s going to be a few big games over there and it’s going to be good to be a part of. I haven’t made the playoffs here, so it’s going to be good to get some big-game experience and we’ll see how we do under pressure.”
Lehtonen sees it as a good opportunity as well.
“I think [there will be benefits],” said Lehtonen. “I get to practice with really good players and hopefully play against all the best guys in the world. That would be pretty cool.”
And the hope is the benefits of playing in big games will pay off when the three Stars return from Sochi and face a lot more big games as the Stars make a push to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Every one we’re going to play over there is going to be huge and then every game we’re going to play coming back is going to be huge,” said Ruff. “So, the focus is go over there and have a great tournament then come back here and be a better player and help lead this team to where we need to go.”
*Based on Canada’s first two days of practices, it appears Jamie Benn will play left wing with John Tavares of the New York Islanders at center and Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins at right wing.
*Valeri Nichushkin has not skated on a regular line so far at Russia’s practices, indicating he could be a scratch for the first game of the tournament.
*Nichushkin will wear No. 43 for Russia. Benn will wear No. 22 for Canada. Kari Lehtonen will wear No. 32 for Finland.
*The Men’s Olympic Hockey Tournament begins Wednesday with two games. Czech Republic will take on Sweden and Latvia plays Switzerland. Canada, Finland and Russia all begin play on Thursday.
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