PITTSBURGH — Paul Martin's first experience representing the United States as a professional came not long after his NHL rookie season.
The former University of Minnesota star and second-round pick of the New Jersey Devils had a solid rookie campaign in 2003-04, showing enough promise that Team USA’s entrant in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey invited the then-23-year-old to join the team.
But it was purportedly just for the exposure to the event — not to actually play in the games.
“A couple guys got hurt — probably about seven or eight guys, actually,” Martin said with a smile. “They had said, ‘Just come hang out.’ I don't even think I was supposed to play. But I got to meet a lot of them, and I ended up playing a couple games, so it was a great experience.”
A college player just a little more than a year prior, Martin suddenly found himself playing the highest level of hockey the world has to offer. He also was instantly teammates with some of the legends of recent American hockey that Martin had grown up as fans of: Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Bill Guerin, Doug Weight...
“As star-struck as I was, those guys were great to me and I learned a lot from them,” said Martin, now a defenseman with the Pittsburgh Penguins. “I realized how important it was to them and how much fun it was. It’s definitely an opportunity that you don't take lightly and you appreciate.”
That was Martin’s first experience representing his country since he joined the NHL, but it wouldn’t be his last. He also played in the 2005 and 2008 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships and was on the roster for the 2006 and 2010 U.S. Olympic Teams.
Although Martin did not get to suit up for a game during Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy, or Vancouver (he was on the taxi squad for the former and was injured during the latter), he’s certainly gained an even greater appreciation for wearing the Team USA jersey in international competition.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to play for my country,” said Martin, who also played in the 2001 World Junior Championship. “Growing up it’s kind of cool because you come from all over the states and get together with top-end players and get to travel the world, and obviously being able to represent your country is a big honor and I take a lot of pride in it.
“As you get older, you realize how important it is and how much more it means. As a kid you’re just playing hockey and it’s one of those cool, like select All-Star deals. But when you get older you realize how many opportunities you might get or might not get. So for me, it’s been a great experience every time I’ve been able to wear the red, white and blue.”
Born in 1981, Martin’s age makes him something of a bridge from the group of players that was face of USA Hockey for a generation (Chelios/Leetch/Modano/Hull/Guerin/Weight/Keith Tkachuk, etc.) to the new wave of young American stars such as Patrick Kane, Zach Parise, Paul Stastny, James van Riemsdyk and Jonathan Quick.
“Those [older players] had played 20 years, 15 years on USA teams, and it was always fun to watch them,” Martin said. “You just always assume that they’ll be there forever, but everyone gets a little older and now the last Olympics was kind of a passing of the torch.”
USA Hockey’s star players have changed since Martin's been paying attention — and the areas that produce them have, too. Whereas when Martin first was coming up, the vast majority of players came from New England, Michigan or Martin's home state of Minnesota, hockey has become more of a national game for kids to play.
For proof, Martin needs only to look across the Penguins locker room. Rookie Beau Bennett was born and trained in Southern California.
“It’s great to see we’re getting guys from all over the place, down south and warmer climates that you typically don't get for hockey,” Martin said. “It definitely helps the game, and hopefully, I’m sure, it will continue.”
At 32, Martin knows his chances for wearing a Team USA sweater in international competition are dwindling. The NHL has yet to announce if players will be made available for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
Even if NHL players are given the green light, Martin, of course, would still need to be selected for the American team by the coaching staff. And, unlike three years ago, he would have to remain healthy.
But assuming everything falls into place, it goes without saying Martin would relish the opportunity to play for Team USA in virtually the only stage that has eluded him: the Olympic Winter Games.
“It’s still a ways off, but it’s definitely something that, as far as loving that chance or being able to have an opportunity, I’d be grateful for it,” Martin said. “Being on the taxi squad in Italy and being able to be on the team but be injured for Vancouver, it was tough to take.
“Growing up playing on all the USA teams you realize how special it is and how much fun it is, and then not being able to participate is always tough, but it definitely made me a stronger player and person and I’m looking forward hopefully to the next Olympics, if they let us play, it’s something I would be glad to be a part of.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.