PHOENIX — In international play, the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the one on the back. The opportunity to represent one’s country is hard to pass up.
The Coyotes recently had five players compete internationally: Christian Dvorak, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Clayton Keller, Connor Murphy and Tobias Rieder.
For a few short weeks each spring, men’s hockey performs on an international stage. The International Ice Hockey Federation Men’s World Championship originated in 1920 at the Summer Games. It is the highest profile international ice hockey tournament outside the Winter Olympics.
The tournament provides a chance for NHL players, whose teams either missed the postseason or had their playoff run fall short, to continue play and have a shot at taking home a medal.
One of the benefits of playing on an international stage is the diverse opportunities a tournament like this can provide its participants.
Among the five Coyotes playing in Worlds, different narratives emerged.
For Clayton Keller, he had the opportunity to play against elite athletes at a pro level for eight consecutive games. The forward was the youngest in the tournament and played only three games at the NHL level during the 2016-17 season.
After winning gold at the World Junior Championship, Keller donned a USA jersey for the second time in one year when he laced up his skates for the Men’s World Championship. This time Keller was facing men, not boys, but he still managed to display the talent that had earned him a last-minute call-up to the NHL after his season at Boston University ended.
“Playing in the World Championships was a great learning experience for Clayton,” Coyotes General Manager John Chayka said. “He was able to produce and play well against men at an elite level. This experience, and the confidence he gained by playing in the tournament, will definitely help him next season.”
After starting on Team USA’s bottom line with fellow Coyotes Christian Dvorak, Keller’s five goals and two assists had him moving up the ranks and playing some first-line minutes.
Throughout the tournament, Keller was key to Team USA’s success as his contributions on the ice helped the team head into the quarterfinals ranked second overall.
His ability to transition his game to the pro level on international ice did not go unnoticed by his captain, Connor Murphy.
“He didn’t surprise me with his skill in the tournament, just because I’d seen him in the few games he played with us at the end of the season,” Murphy said. “I think that his experience will hopefully help him have some momentum coming into training camp next year, and show everyone what he’s capable of.”
The tournament marked Murphy’s fourth year representing Team USA at World Championships. Last year he served as alternate captain and was named one of Team USA’s players of the tournament.
‘This tournament has really helped me develop,” Murphy said when asked why he continues to participate each spring. “It’s a different kind of game.”
Although each team is not filled with top NHL talent, Murphy said, players are still being tested in different ways.
“It’s a big challenge to defend on that big ice and being able to come together with a group of guys and seeing what you can do in a three-week period,” Murphy said.
Before the tournament began this year, Murphy was named captain for Team USA. It was a beneficial experience for the young defenseman.
“It was eye-opening for me to wear the letter, and to be seen as a guy who could do that was really special,” Murphy said. “I’ve been going to the tournament for a while and I was a guy with a little more experience on a younger team, so they felt like I could be put in that role.”
Team USA is not the only one who has noticed what Murphy can bring to the game both in play and in the locker room. Coyotes General Manager John Chayka was happy to see Murphy put in such a high position on the team.
“Connor is a very mature young man and he’s made great strides on and off the ice the past year,” Chayka said. “He has emerged as a leader on our team and this experience will only help him in the future.”
As a member of the Sarnia Sting, a junior team based in Ontario, Murphy was alternate captain for the 2012-13 season, but his experience this year was his first taste of leadership at the pro level. While this role was relatively new to him, he has been surrounded by strong leaders throughout his career.
“I’ve been around Shane Doan the last couple of years, and he’s such a great leader with how sincere he is as a person and how much he puts into his game and how he leads by example, speaking up at the right times,” Murphy said. “Guys like Shane, and others I’ve played with, are huge to help you when you start getting put into these roles, and show you how to handle it.
“I was just trying to my best to be like those guys. It was a great experience to take with me if I’m ever in another leadership role. I know now to just be myself and work hard and know that guys are looking at you and noticing that.”
After battling a thumb injury all season and dealing with the loss of his mother to cancer, Oliver Ekman-Larsson was one player who used the international stage of the IIHF World Championships. This tournament was a second chance at glory.
And what better way to end the hockey season than with a gold medal?
“We were all very happy to see Oliver win a gold medal at the IIHF World Championships,” Chayka said. “Oliver battled through a lot of adversity this season with his thumb injury and the passing of his mom so it’s nice to see him finish the hockey season on a high note.”
Although Ekman-Larsson and Murphy played on separate teams in this tournament, two seasons ago the two were defensive partners for the majority of the 2015-16 season. The USA captain, being close with Ekman-Larsson, was proud to see his teammate overcome the challenges he faced this season and have a memorable tournament.
“He’s been through a lot this past year,” Murphy said. “He’s such an unbelievable guy and everyone is friends with him. He is such an incredible talent and for years he’s looked to step up his game for us and to see him come back and win gold for his country, he deserves it.”
The exposure that comes with competing for the team that wins gold on an international stage is one that many feel Ekman-Larsson has long-deserved for his NHL play.
“He played incredible for his country. In my opinion he’s very underrated so it’s cool to see him get rewarded that way,” Murphy said. “He’s had such a great career and he will continue to be a guy that will lead the way for us in Arizona.”
Dvorak also benefited from the experience of playing for the United States in the IIHF World Championships. Rieder did, too, playing for Germany, although he suffered an ankle injury that required surgery.
The international stage is a proving ground for any player, but for these three Coyotes the IIHF World Championships provided a few extra opportunities. They managed to turn an early off season into a chance to represent their country and better themselves heading into whatever next season may hold for the Coyotes.