Gophers alumnus plays for U.S. Olympic hockey team

Defenseman Paul Martin, also a former Gophers player, waits to hear if he will play.

Chris Lempesis

From 1999 to 2002, defenseman Jordan Leopold had a storied college career at Minnesota that included a national title and the Hobey Baker Award in 2002. Upon graduating, he joined the Calgary Flames and has become a solid NHL defenseman.

Still, with all that being said, Leopold wasn’t sure he’d get picked to be on the 2006 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey team.

But when he found out he would become an Olympian for the first time in late December, he was excited.

“It’s pretty neat,” Leopold said.

“I’m very lucky and fortunate to be representing my country on the biggest, broadest sports scene every four years.”

Leopold is, as of now, the only Minnesota alumnus on the 23-player roster for the games in Torino, Italy, which begin Friday. And he’s also one of only three Minnesota-born players (Leopold is a native of Golden Valley) on the team. He said that makes the selection extra special.

“Hockey’s a big part of the culture in Minnesota and to come from a culture like that is exciting,” he said. “And being able to represent your home area as well as your country is pretty neat.”

While he won’t miss the Olympics, he and the rest of the team will miss Friday’s opening ceremonies because NHL games are being played until Sunday. The team will then head to Italy on Feb. 13.

“It’d be neat to take in the whole (Olympic) experience,” Leopold said. “But to even take in some of it is pretty neat and special.”

A possible reunion?

Leopold is currently the only Minnesota graduate on the roster, but there’s an outside chance he could be joined by a face that’s familiar to him and Gophers fans alike.

Defenseman Paul Martin “who played with Leopold for two seasons during his time at Minnesota (which ran from 2001-2003) ” might be named to the three player taxi squad which will accompany the team to Torino. Taxi squad players are the ones who would step in to replace any team members who are injured during the games.

And while Martin, currently a member of the New Jersey Devils, said he has been in contact with the team’s director of hockey operations, Jim Johannson, as of Thursday he said he wasn’t sure if he’d be selected.

“There have been some rumors,” Martin said. “I’ll know more probably, I think next Monday; they’re going to make some form of an announcement. And they’re going to bring probably two defenseman and a forward. Or maybe two forwards and a “D’.

“So, that’s pretty much all I know.”

One thing Martin said he was sure of was that he’s excited about the possibility of meeting up with Leopold. Leopold shared those sentiments.

“It’s a good opportunity for him if he actually gets a call to play,” Leopold said. “I’d like to play with him because we’re good buddies off the ice and have a lot of fun together.”

Handicapping the field

There are 12 teams in the field for men’s hockey at the games. But, as usual, it’s the same group of countries that are expected to be in the running for the gold medal.

Leading that group is the country where hockey started, Canada. The Canadian squad is loaded from top to bottom with players such as Jerome Iginla (a teammate of Leopold’s in Calgary) at forward, Rob Blake (Colorado Avalanche) at defense and Martin Brodeur (a teammate of Martin’s in New Jersey) in goal.

Russia, Finland and the Czech Republic are also considered gold-medal favorites.

And while Leopold agreed that Canada is the early front-runner, he said that might not necessarily be the best thing for them.

“It’s not always good to be the favorite,” he said. “People are gunning for you and playing their best when you’re playing that team.”

The U.S. team has some star power of its own with players such as forward Mike Modano (Dallas Stars) and defenseman/team captain Chris Chelios (Detroit Red Wings).

“I’m just thrilled at the opportunity to have another chance to try and win a gold medal with this group of guys and the 10 or 11 guys that haven’t played in the Olympics,” Chelios said. “I got a little opportunity last World Cup to play with some of them ” the Jason Blakes and other young players ” and I think they got a taste of what to expect.”

Some experts have said the team will struggle to compete for even a bronze medal. Leopold said that could work to be a positive.

“To be an underdog is kind of a nice thing because you can sneak up on people,” Leopold said. “So, we feel we have a good shot. We just have to play smart, solid hockey and whatever happens, happens.”