15 players with USHL credentials competing for Olympic gold
There is much anticipation from around the hockey world for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics as the best hockey players from around the globe will represent their native countries in Sochi, Russia this February. A total of eight USHL alumni have been selected for the United States team, but seven other graduates of the League will also be participating in the international tournament.
The USHL is made up mostly of players born in the United States, but “import” rules have made it possible for some elite talent from other countries to benefit from the development model in the League.
Four different countries besides the United States have recently named USHL alumni to their Olympic rosters, led by Latvia who feature four and Austria, Canada, and Czech Republic which have one each.
Combined with those players selected for the United States, there are nine current USHL Member Clubs with alumni set to compete in the Olympics, including two each for the Lincoln Stars, Omaha Lancers, Sioux Falls Stampede, and Dubuque Fighting Saints.
USHL Alumni on Olympic Teams (non-American)
Patrick Sharp (F), Chicago Black Hawks – Thunder Bay Flyers (1998-2000)
The Winnipeg, Manitoba native came to the USHL at just 16 years old, but quickly found success. He racked up 43 points (19g, 24a) in 55 games as a rookie and then followed up with 55 points (20g, 35a) in 56 games the following year. He went to play two collegiate seasons at the University of Vermont. After his freshman year, he was selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the third round (95th overall) of the 2001 NHL Draft and would make his NHL debut with the team during the 2002-03 season. Sharp was acquired the Chicago Blackhawks in December 2005. He has since helped the organization win the Stanley Cup twice and scored over 200 goals. The recently turned 32-year-old is currently second in the NHL this season with 25 goals.
Thomas Vanek (F), New York Islanders – Sioux Falls Stampede (1999-2002)
The Vienna, Austria native was just 15 when he set foot on the ice in the USHL for the first time. He collected 62 points (34g, 28a) over 55 combined games in his first two seasons, but then broke out with one of the best performances in USHL history during the 2001-02 season when he put up 91 points (46g, 45a) in 53 games for the Stampede to lead the League in scoring and earn All-USHL First Team honors. He continued his scoring dominance over two college seasons at the University of Minnesota. Vanek was selected in the 2003 NHL Draft after his freshman year by the Buffalo Sabres in the first round (5th overall). He made his NHL debut with the Sabres during the 2005-06 season and has annually been one of the NHL’s top scorers. He will celebrate his 30th birthday later this month and has put up 28 points (11g, 17a) in 29 games this year after being acquired by the New York Islanders.
Zemgus Girgensons (F), Buffalo Sabres – Dubuque Fighting Saints (2010-12)
The Riga, Latvia native had a stellar career in the USHL as he put up 104 points (45g, 59a) in 100 regular season games. As a rookie, he also helped the Saints capture the Clark Cup title in 2011. He was named captain of the team during his second season and earned a spot on the All-USHL First Team. Girgensons was then selected by the Buffalo Sabres in the first round (14th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft, one of six USHL players chosen in the first round and he became the highest drafted Latvian native ever. He would sign a NHL contract later that summer and began his professional career in the AHL. The recently turned 20-year-old has recorded 14 points (4g, 10a) in 41 games this season for the Sabres. He is the only NHL player on the Latvian team.
Ralfs Freibergs (D), Bowling Green State University – Lincoln Stars (2011-12)
The Riga Latvia native had a huge impact during his lone USHL season, leading all defensemen in scoring with 43 points (8g, 35a) while appearing in all 60 regular season games. His plus-24 rating also ranked 11th overall in the League. He helped the Stars finish first in the Western Conference standings as they gave up just 172 goals during the season, fourth fewest in the League. The defenseman was named to the All-USHL Second Team. Freibergs is currently in his second season of college hockey and has produced 16 points (1g, 15a) in 24 games for Bowling Green. He is the only player in the Olympics who is currently playing in the NCAA.
Georgijs Pujacs (D), Riga Dynamo (KHL) – Rochester Mustangs (1999-2000)
The defenseman came to the USHL after being selected by the Boston Bruins in the ninth round (264th overall) of the 1999 NHL Draft. He recorded 17 points (4g, 13a) over 50 games in the USHL for the Rochester Mustangs. He then immediately began playing professional hockey after his season in the in Rochester concluded. The Riga, Latvia native has since spent most of his professional career playing in the Russian KHL. The 32-year-old is currently playing in his hometown for Riga Dynamo in the KHL.
Arvids Rekis (D), Riga Dynamo (KHL) – Dubuque Fighting Saints (1995-96)
The Jurmala, Latvia native played for the original Dubuque Fighting Saints and collected six points (3g, 3a) and 85 penalty minutes over 35 USHL games. He went on to a lengthy professional career, playing in both North America and Europe. The 35-year-old currently plays for Riga Dynamo in the KHL. It will be the third time he has competed in the Olympics.
Martin Hanzal (F), Phoenix Coyotes – Omaha Lancers (2005-06)
The Pisek, Czech Republic native came to the USHL after being selected by the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round (17th overall) of the 2005 NHL Draft. He put up 19 points (4g, 15a) in 19 regular season games while also adding a goal over five playoff contests. Hanzal made his NHL debut during the 2007-08 season, less than two years after playing in the USHL. The 26-year-old is now in his seventh NHL season and is having one of his best years offensively as he is among the top scorers for the Coyotes with 30 points (12g, 18a) in 39 games.
Related story: USHL Alumni Highlight U.S. Olympic Team
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 12th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2013-14. A record 32 players were chosen in the 2013 NHL Draft and more than 300 players on team rosters last season have committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent. For more information, visit us on the web at www.USHL.com or visit the League’s social media platforms, including Facebook (www.facebook.com/ushlhockey), twitter (www.twitter.com/ushl), and YouTube (www.youtube.com/ushlinteractive). Fans can also watch USHL action all season long, live or on-demand via FASTHockey (ushl.fasthockey.com).
It’s not just hockey. It’s the USHL.
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