With no NHL playoffs, Alaskans take on world

William DouglasMcClatchy Washington Bureau
Martti Kainulainen

HELSINKI -- You would think that the last thing Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Matt Carle and forward Nate Thompson of Anchorage would do after a grueling, condensed, lockout-shortened NHL season is travel overseas to play even more hockey.

But with the Lightning out of the Stanley Cup playoffs picture, the two Alaskans bolted the Sunshine State and headed to Helsinki to join the United States men's hockey team competing in the 16-nation International Ice Hockey Federation's world championship. Carle and Thompson put aside the bumps, bruises and fatigue from playing 48 NHL games in 99 days because of the league's labor woes and jumped at the chance to join an underdog American squad that's peppered with promising young NHL skaters and up-and-coming minor leaguers.

"There was the lockout and everything and the condensed schedule, but any time you get a chance to represent your country is a real honor," Carle said after a recent U.S. team practice. "I think all of us, especially guys who played in the NHL this season, would like to be playing in the NHL playoffs but it's a nice little treat to be able to come over here and represent our country."

Thompson, a center who compiled seven goals and eight assists in 45 games for the Lightning, said being in Helsinki was "bittersweet" because of Tampa Bay's 18-26-4 record and fourth place finish in the NHL's soon-to-be-defunct five-team Southeast Division, but he added that the chance "to play more hockey is always fun."

The U.S. team is competing against Russia, Canada, Finland and Sweden, and other hockey-crazed countries in Scandinavia and Europe in games played Finland's capital and Stockholm, Sweden. The tournament began May 3 and ends May 19 with the gold medal game in Stockholm.

Like the American squad, the other teams feature NHL players whose teams failed to make the playoffs. Team Canada, for instance, has a proverbial all-star team with the likes of Lightning scoring machine Steven Stamkos, Philadelphia Flyers center Claude Giroux, and brothers Eric and Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes. Russia's roster boasts New Jersey Devils sniper Ilya Kovalchuk and Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ilya Bryzgalov.

"There's no easy game, there's no easy way out. World championship, there's lots of good players here," Bryzgalov said. "Every game is very tough and pretty even."

But nearly every NHL players entered the tourney with lots of hockey miles on them from an abbreviated season in which teams often played three games a week or more, including contests on back-to-back days, giving players little time to recuperate.

Some players appeared in more than 48 games because they played for professional teams in Europe or with North America minor league teams during the lockout. Thompson played for his hometown Alaska Aces of the ECHL, a minor league two rungs below the NHL.

"It was a good experience," he said. "It was a couple of levels lower, but it was fun to be home and it was definitely good to play hockey."

For Carle, playing in the worlds capped a frustrating season that began with high hopes when he joined the Lightning as a marquee free agent from the Flyers. His signing and the acquisition of goalie Anders Lindback from the Nashville Predators were supposed to help solve the team's defense and netminding woes.

Carle tallied five goals and 17 assists during the regular season and was a plus-1 player. But the offensively-gifted Lightning continued to struggle defensively, which led to coach Guy Boucher's dismissal after going 13-18-1 during the season. Replacement coach Jon Cooper didn't fare much better, finishing the season with a 5-8-3 record. With Lindback unable to establish himself as the team's top goalie, Tampa General Manager Steve Yzerman acquired Ben Bishop from the Ottawa Senators at the league's trade deadline

With all the comings and goings in Tampa Bay -- including his own arrival -- Carle admitted that his first season was "an adjustment" that was made more difficult by the lockout.

"You get in with a new group of guys, new coaching staff, a new system, you hope to have a longer, normal three-week training camp to get adjusted," he said. "But we were thrown into the fire right away with a short training camp and no preseason games. So it was a new experience."

He said the world championship tournament is helping him get a head start on Tampa Bay's 2013-14 season because it's giving him the opportunity to play more with Bishop, who is the U.S. starting goaltender.

"He and I are actually roommates here so I think it helps even more to build a friendship there, to work with him, to get to know him more on and off the ice," he said. "He's a guy who's very active in playing the puck so as a defenseman it's specifically nice to be able to get more reps together with him."

Bishop said he's using the tournament as a springboard for the next NHL season -- and for consideration for a slot on the 2014 U.S. men's Olympic hockey team, if the NHL let's its players compete in the Winter Games in the games in Sochi, Russia. Bishop could be in the mix with a bevy of American-born goalies including Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, the Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller and Cory Schneider of the Vancouver Canucks.

He could also face a dark horse challenge from Team USA backup goalie John Gibson, 19, a 2011 Anaheim Ducks draft pick who played for the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. Gibson already has extensive international hockey experience, including backstopping the United States to gold medals in the IIHF's world junior hockey championship in 2013 and 2011.


William Douglas
McClatchy Foreign Staff