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Team USA gets Wheels

Jets' first Olympian; Ladd, Jokinen, Frolik, Pavelec might go, too

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Jets star forward Blake Wheeler is bound for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next month as a member of the U.S. hockey team.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Jets star forward Blake Wheeler is bound for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next month as a member of the U.S. hockey team. Photo Store

The Winnipeg Jets have their first Olympian.

Right-winger Blake Wheeler was named to Team USA Wednesday and, barring injury, will travel to Sochi, Russia, in February to take part in his first Olympics.

Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Zach Bogosian were early considerations for Team USA but none was able to convince GM David Poile and his committee with their early season results.

Wheeler started slow but has rebounded of late and now has 15 goals and 16 assists through 42 games. The Minnesota native had 10 goals in December to cement his position.

Wheeler has played for his country on two previous occasions -- in 2006 at the world junior tournament and in 2011 at the world championship.

Other Jets in contention for Olympic roster spots are Andrew Ladd (Canada), Olli Jokinen (Finland), Ondrej Pavelec (Czech Republic) and Michael Frolik (Czech Republic).

Also learning of their selection to Team USA Wednesday were Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk..

Before Kessel and van Riemsdyk were top-five NHL draft picks, they were kids heading off to the U.S. national team development program in Ann Arbor, Mich.

That the announcement of their selection to the U.S. Olympic team came after Wednesday's Winter Classic in Ann Arbor made it a cool moment for the Leafs linemates. That it happened at Michigan Stadium, down the street from where Kessel and van Riemsdyk grew into men on the ice, made it special.

"It's kind of crazy how it comes full circle," van Riemsdyk said.

Kessel left Madison, Wis., in 2003, and van Riemsdyk left Middletown, N.J., to make the trip to Ann Arbor. It wasn't easy.

"You're in your comfort zone. You're coming out here and there's no promises as far as what can happen," van Riemsdyk said.

Kessel and van Riemsdyk excelled there and eventually developed into stars with the Leafs. Now they're on the U.S. Olympic team.

"This is, since I came to Ann Arbor, something that I've always wanted to do is be able to play at the Olympics," van Riemsdyk said while wearing the U.S. jersey after the Winter Classic. "It's a huge thrill for me and I'm very excited."

Kessel had a goal and an assist in six games as a member of the silver-medal-winning U.S. team at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The 26-year-old represented the U.S. at the 2006, 2007 and 2008 world championships.

"Obviously it's an honour," Kessel said Tuesday, before he was officially notified of his Team USA selection. "Whenever you get a chance to represent your country, it's a big deal."

This is the first Olympic appearance for the 24-year-old van Riemsdyk, who has been Kessel's linemate all season. That could continue in Sochi.

"James van Riemsdyk happens to play on a line with Phil Kessel, and I would strongly assume that the coaches would try to work them into the situation where they'll be on the same line," Poile said.

Van Riemsdyk played at the world juniors in 2007, 2008 and 2009 and then the 2011 world championships. His growth has been a steady process, culminating with his time in Toronto. The No. 2 pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2007, he spent two seasons at the University of New Hampshire before going pro.

The Flyers signed him to a US$25.5-million, six-year contract in summer 2011 but traded him to the Leafs in exchange for defenceman Luke Schenn before it went into effect.

Van Riemsdyk has developed into a first-liner with the Leafs, recording 33 goals and 29 assists for Toronto, including a goal in Wednesday's Winter Classic.

Kessel has experienced even more success with the Leafs since the Bruins traded him in 2009 for two first-round picks and a second.

In Toronto, he has put up 30 goals in each of his first three full seasons and scored 20 during the lockout-shortened 48-game season in 2013. His scoring prowess earned him a US$64-million, eight-year deal that begins next year.

Kessel goes into Sochi in his hockey-playing prime, joining Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks, Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings and the injured Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild among the top U.S. wingers.

Vancouver forward Ryan Kesler and Montreal forward Max Pacioretty also made the team, along with Wheeler and Detroit goaltender and U.S. national team development program product Jimmy Howard.

 

-- with files from The Canadian Press

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 2, 2014 D3

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