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Olympic Games create opportunities for hockey players

February 13,2018 09:37

It was a long road to the Olympics for James Wisniewski. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press). Defenseman Jon Blum's hockey path has taken him from Rancho Santa Margarita to Vancouver; Nashville; Milwaukee; St. Paul, Minn.; Des Moines, Iowa; and Russia ...and more »



By Helene Elliott
Feb 12, 2018 | 5:55 PM
| Pyeongchang, South Korea

It was a long road to the Olympics for James Wisniewski. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)

Defenseman Jon Blum's hockey path has taken him from Rancho Santa Margarita to Vancouver; Nashville; Milwaukee; St. Paul, Minn.; Des Moines, Iowa; and Russia. It didn't occur to him at any point that he'd play in the Olympics.

As far as he knew while he grew up and became the Predators' first-round pick in the 2007 NHL draft, the Olympics were for ultra-elite NHL players. He was skillful but didn't reach that level.

"I never, ever thought it would happen," he said.

Defenseman James Wisniewski, who had two stints with the Ducks among his 552 NHL games, thought his career was over after he tore his ACL in his debut with Carolina in 2015 and his 25-game tryout contract with Chicago of the American Hockey League didn't lead to another NHL job.

But when it became clear NHL players wouldn't participate in these Winter Games, U.S. general manager Jim Johannson called Wisniewski and offered him a chance to wear the red, white and blue if he could get back into shape. Off Wisniewski went to a second-tier team in Kassel, Germany. Next stop, Pyeongchang.

"It's been such a pleasure, the highlight of my career, to be able to call yourself an Olympian," said Wisniewski, a bruising hitter with a booming shot.

Center Troy Terry, whose stock has soared since the Ducks chose him in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, expected to spend this season preparing to defend the University of Denver's NCAA title. He took a surprise detour when he was invited to be among the four college players on the U.S. Olympic roster.

At 20, he's the baby of the team. "Everyone kind of razzes me for being the kid and being the young guy but it's been awesome," he said. "I think we're coming together as a team really quick."

Blum, Wisniewski, and Terry have more in common than their ties to Southern California. They'll all be asked to play key roles when Team USA opens preliminary-round play here on Wednesday against Slovenia at Kwandong Hockey Centre, the first Olympic tournament not to feature NHL stars since the 1994 Winter Games.

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No one is quite sure how this will turn out. The powerful hockey nations that came to rely on NHL standouts had to dig deep into domestic and foreign leagues to fill out their rosters, coming up with many players who were a little too short or a bit too slow to become prominent NHL players.

But while the overall talent level won't match the extraordinary level it hit in the last five Olympic tournaments, these teams likely won't be short on tenacity.

"To win, we don't need a miracle," coach Tony Granato said when asked if he sees similarities to the "Miracle on Ice" squad that upset the mighty Russians and won gold in 1980. "We need to be at our best for two weeks."

Granato expects Blum, Wisniewski and Terry to contribute heavily to that effort. Granato put assistant coach Chris Chelios—a Hall of Fame defenseman and four-time Olympian—in charge of Team USA's defense corps and said Chelios liked Blum's reliability at the Deutschland Cup tournament late last year and on the film Chelios watched of Blum's Kontinental Hockey League games.

"I think he's an experienced guy that knows what his limitations are. I think he knows what his role will be on our team," Granato said of Blum. "He's an experienced player that's been through a lot in his career and has an opportunity to play in the Olympics so he's ready to go."

Knee injuries have slowed Wisniewski over the years.

"But he could shoot it pretty good, though," Granato said. "He's going to be a power-play guy, like [Chris] Bourque. Extremely skilled offensively. These tournaments, the short tournaments, you have to have a good power play and penalty kill. So when you're building your team, you look for guys who can do something that other players can't. Wisniewski's shot is something that not many players have."

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Terry, too, is likely to get power-play time. Granato has aligned him with Marc Arcobello and Ryan Donato of Harvard, the son of 1992 U.S. Olympic hockey player Ted Donato. "A very talented and highly skilled line," Granato said. "They'll have that opportunity, as we start, to play important minutes and power play."

Ducks general manager Bob Murray expects Terry's progress to be accelerated by competing on the international stage.

"It's a great opportunity for him. To play in the Olympics is an unbelievable experience and can only advance his development," Murray said via email.

Blum and Wisniewski are hopeful their visibility at the Olympics will put them back on the radar of NHL teams that need a defenseman for a playoff run. "I was hoping to come here and show that I can still play," said Wisniewski, who will be 34 next week.

"You never know. With the Games ending before the [Feb. 26] trade deadline, some of the guys over here, if they don't have contracts, will be cheap. You don't have to trade future assets. They can just bring you in for depth. I'm looking to come out here and play for my country and take care of business first, and then see what happens."

Blum said some NHL teams had offered him two-way contracts but he turned them down because he can earn more money in Russia to better provide for his wife, Emilie, and their son, Jackson, who live in Ladera Ranch. "Every year I play in Russia I try my best to get back. It's definitely a hard life being away from your family and living in Russia," he said. "This is another opportunity for me to showcase my talent and, hopefully, get back. But if not, I'm happy playing in Russia and this is an unbelievable experience that I'll never forget."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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