ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Capitals defenseman John Carlson will practice with his team as usual on New Year's Day. He will prepare for Thursday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes, joke with teammates, shed his gear and head directly home to find out if he has been picked for the trip of a lifetime.
Carlson, 23, is under consideration for one of the final spots on Team USA, which heads to the Russian resort town of Sochi next month for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The Americans came within a goal of a gold medal in Vancouver four years ago. They should be in the mix again. If chosen, Carlson will get to experience something few athletes do.
"It'll be a tremendous honor to be selected to represent your country for an opportunity to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics," Carlson said. "I'll be watching the announcement [Wednesday] like a lot of other players around the NHL."
Indeed, Carlson will learn his fate by watching on television following Wednesday's Winter Classic in Ann Arbor between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs. After the game, USA Hockey will announce its final roster at the venue, University of Michigan Stadium, and live on NBC television.
If Carlson misses out, his dream isn't completely dashed. There is still a month left for NHL players to get through and injuries are possible, after all. But if he makes it? He'll have yet another chance to represent his country. Carlson famously won the prestigious World Juniors gold medal for the United States in 2010 with an overtime goal against Canada. That tournament features the best under-20 players in the world.
Carlson has seven goals and eight assists for 15 points. Only four NHL defensemen have more goals and only one — Boston's Torey Krug — is an American. Carlson's low assist total, however, has him ranked 41st in points among defensemen.
He's also been on the ice for 2.93 goals against per 60 minutes of ice time. That ranks well behind teammates Mike Green (2.65) and Karl Alzner (2.59) and could be one reason that Team USA officials, led by general manager David Poile, go in another direction. Poile was Washington's general manager from 1982 to 1997.
"To me, that's an easy answer," Caps coach Adam Oates told reporters last week. "[Carlson] should be on it because he's one of the best defensemen in the league."
Other American players won't have to sweat out the selection process. In Ann Arbor, Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk finished one final practice before the outdoor game at Michigan Stadium. Both players — linemates all season — are virtual locks to make the team and head to Sochi next month.
"It's kind of crazy how it all comes full circle," said van Riemsdyk, who spent two years living in Ann Arbor at age 16 and 17 as part of the United States National Team Development Program that is based in the city. "If I get the opportunity to do that, it'd be a huge thrill. It's always a thrill to represent your country."
But while the opportunity is drawing closer, both Kessel and van Riemsdyk are trying to keep their focus on their NHL team. Toronto is 20-16-5 at the halfway point of the season and trying to maintain its precarious place in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. Anything that distracts too much from that is a problem.
"Whenever you get a chance to represent your country it's a big deal," said Kessel, who also spent two years in Ann Arbor at 16 and 17 with the USNTDP. "But I haven't even thought about [the Olympics]. There's been a lot of [NHL] games this year, playing every other day basically. You just don't really think about it."
Meanwhile, Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard is fighting back from a knee injury that sidelined him for three weeks in December. He gave up six goals on Monday in a loss to Nashville, but remains the starter for the Winter Classic, according to coach Mike Babcock. Howard, 29, remains in line to be Team USA's third goalie behind Ryan Miller (Buffalo) and Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles). For bubble players like Howard and Carlson the waiting is almost over.
"That's going to be in the back of your mind for pretty much the whole year," van Riemsdyk said. "The key is just to focus on the day-to-day as far as making yourself a better player and helping your team now. Because the more you do that, you're going to have a better chance of making that Olympic team."
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