Hockey | Blue Jackets’ Atkinson happy for chance to play at worlds
Cam Atkinson was “jealous as hell” of friend and former Blue Jackets teammate James Wisniewski playing for Team USA at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February, which current NHL players weren’t permitted to do.
So when Atkinson received an invitation to play for the United States at the world championships in Denmark this month after the Blue Jackets were eliminated by the Washington Capitals in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, he eagerly accepted.
His “no-brainer” decision, which Atkinson said Tuesday stemmed from his “itch to keep playing and represent our country” and was sealed after a review of the roster, has worked out wonderfully for him and the Americans.
Entering Thursday’s quarterfinal games, all of which will include at least one Blue Jackets player or prospect, Atkinson has six goals and four assists in seven games while playing wing on the top line opposite Patrick Kane. He scored both shootout goals in the U.S. team’s tournament-opening win against Canada, and had the overtime winner against Latvia.
“I feel really confident on the ice,” said Atkinson, who has worn No. 89 (his birth year) at the world championship and is pondering switching from No. 13 to 89 with the Jackets. “My first time (at the worlds, in 2012), it obviously was great to play for your country, but I was still (an NHL) rookie and trying to learn the ropes a little bit. Now, I’m a more established player in the league.”
Atkinson, who closed the 2017-18 regular season with 33 points in the final 33 games after returning from a broken foot, added, “Any chance you get to play for your country is really special. Learning a new culture, visiting a new country, playing with some old teammates and college buddies, and meeting some new teammates, it has been a great experience.”
Atkinson said the entire U.S. team, whose general manager is Blue Jackets assistant GM Bill Zito, is trying to win gold in honor of Jim Johansson, the famed USA hockey executive who died in his sleep Jan. 21 at age 53.
As the U.S. plays the Czech Republic at 10:15 a.m. Columbus time at Jyske Bank Boxen in Herning, Canada and Russia will square off at Royal Arena in Copenhagen. Finland will face Switzerland in Herning and Sweden will take on Latvia in Copenhagen in the other quarterfinals, at 2:15 p.m.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’re a confident bunch,” Atkinson said of the Americans.
The matchups will feature several Blue Jackets players and prospects: Defenseman Markus Nutivaara has two goals (17 shots on goal), six assists and a plus-9 rating in seven games for Finland; goaltender Elvis Merzlikins is 4-0-1-0 with a 1.19 goals-against average for Latvia; center Pierre-Luc Dubois has 2-3-5 in six games and defenseman Ryan Murray 0-1-1 in seven games for Canada; defenseman Dean Kukan has 1-1-2 in seven games for Switzerland; winger Sonny Milano has 1-1-2 in five games for the U.S.; defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov has 0-1-1 and a plus-7 rating in seven games for Russia.
Forwards Oliver Bjorkstrand (1-2-3) of Denmark and Alexandre Texier (0-3-3) of France didn’t advance from group play.
“The importance of this tournament in some of these countries, in Europe in particular, is very high, so it’s a big stage for those guys,” said Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who attended group-play games in Copenhagen.
That’s especially true, Kekalainen noted, for an 18-year-old such as Texier, who “played some great games here.” Texier will remain in France for another year to mature physically, Kekalainen said, but he showed he was “one of the best players on the ice” in a 5-2 win over Austria when he recorded three assists.
Gavrikov “could play on our team right now,” Kekalainen said. “He has played in the world championships a couple of times now, and he’s physically mature. But he’s got another year left on his contract (with Yaroslavl of the KHL), so we’ll have to wait.”
Merzlikins also has a year left on his contract with his Swiss team, HC Lugano.
Of the quarterfinals on Thursday, Kekalainen said, “Our guys will get a good taste of what high-pressure games are all about.”