It might not have the prestige as the Olympic Winter Games or the World Championships, but for the players making up Team USA at the upcoming Deutschland Cup, the mystique of pulling on the national team jersey is still the same.
Consisting of Americans playing professionally in Europe, the U.S. squad contains several players with past NHL experience, such as former Winnipeg Jet Tim Stapleton, former New Jersey winger Nick Palmieri, ex-Washington Capital Chris Bourque (yes, Ray’s son) and former Phoenix winger Peter Mueller, among many others.
The tournament, which begins on Friday in Munich, Germany, and lasts through the weekend, will pit Team USA against teams from Slovakia, Switzerland and Germany.
“Every chance to play for your country is something special,” said goaltender Jeff Frazee, who played for Team USA at the World Junior Championships in 2006 and ’07, winning bronze in ‘07. “Looking back to all my time with USA Hockey has been something I hold dear. Some of my best memories have been representing my country. This tournament is no different than any other in regards to excitement.”
Frazee, who spent five years in the Devils’ organization, mostly with the American Hockey League affiliate in Albany, is playing this season with Valpellice in Italy.
For Stapleton, who has played the past two years in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League — last season with Dinamo Minsk and this one with Ak Bars Kazan — the opportunity to suit up for Team USA, even after playing in two World Championships, is always a thrill.
“It’s always an honor to be able to put on a USA jersey at any point in my career,” said Stapleton, who helped the U.S. win bronze at last year’s World Championships, contributing two goals and five points in 10 games. “Both World Championships were great experiences. Last year was obviously the better of the two being able to win a bronze medal, and for myself, I was able to contribute a little more on the ice. “For a guy like me this is the closest I will ever get to playing in any Olympics. I just feel lucky to be even asked to represent my country."
The biggest challenge for a short international tournament like the Deutschland Cup will be integrating players from different teams across Europe into one cohesive unit. The teams that can quickly develop strong chemistry have the best chances of winning.
“I think we will have a good chance,” Stapleton said. “The three countries we are playing are going to be tough games. Many of these teams have players competing in and preparing for the upcoming Olympics, so obviously it’s going to be very competitive. It is always tough to try and form chemistry in such a short period of time. We did it last year pretty well at World Championships. This will be a little different being that so many players are coming from various leagues with different styles of play. It will be interesting to see.”
The process will likely be helped by the fact that many of the players have been teammates at some point in their past, so it’s not like the players will all be meeting for the first time in the locker room in Munich.
“I’m very excited to see some familiar faces that I have played with in the past,” said Frazee, who can count at least five players on the Team USA Deutschland Cup roster as former teammates.
“I am familiar with many of the players, and it is a great group of guys and I don’t think chemistry and camaraderie will be a problem off the ice,” Stapleton added. “It should carry over to on the ice and I think the chemistry could be there. It should be a fun time for everyone.”
Most of these players who opt to play in Europe have been overlooked by NHL squads or, in some way, have had their dreams of playing regularly in the NHL either postponed or hindered by various circumstances.
It could be that the opportunity to secure even stable AHL employment was lacking, or perhaps the lure of living abroad, immersed in a new culture, while playing a larger role on the ice than they would have in North America, was too much to pass up.
Also, the money is usually better there than they would make in the ECHL, and the teams typically play fewer games, resulting in less physical wear and tear.
For Frazee, who finally got his first taste of NHL action last season at age 25, when he stopped all three shots he faced in 19 minutes for the Devils, becoming an unrestricted free agent left him without a job.
“It was mainly a decision based on economics,” said Frazee, who was New Jersey’s second-round selection (38 overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. “My wife and I just had our first child in April and it became late in the summer and there were no AHL teams looking for goalies. Starting our family on a try-out contract or in the ECHL didn’t provide what we wanted or needed as a family. We are very fortunate to have a place where we can accomplish the things we wanted as a family, and Italy is a great place to spend a season.”
For Stapleton, it was a similar situation, but one complicated further by the NHL lockout that wiped out the first half of the 2012-13 season.
“The summer going into the lockout, everyone knew there was going to be a lockout and I was trying to sign back in Winnipeg,” said Stapleton, who had 11 goals and 27 points in 63 games with the Jets in 2011-12. “Then it just made sense to secure myself with a job somewhere rather then wait around, so I decided to go try Russia.
“I originally had an agreement to come back if lockout ended, but when it did, I just ended up staying. The year went better than expected and realizing the style of hockey and how much more ice time I was getting compared to in North America, I decided to stay for another year.”
Playing in Europe also has provided these players with the opportunity to play for Team USA on the international stage — a nice perk indeed.
The United States opens the tournament on Friday against Slovakia.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.