For one American forward a call-up to the 2014 Worlds was a chance to catch up with old friends - and an appearance against his former club's fans in Minsk.
For Team USA forward Tim Stapleton the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship is something of a home-coming.
The 31-year-old from Illinois spent a season wowing the crowds at Minsk Arena as a star forward for local heroes Dynamo, putting up 40 points in 52 games and earning a slot in the 2013 KHL All-Star Game.
It was also a move that got him back into international contention, earning him a call-up for the 2013 Worlds, his second appearance in his country’s jersey.
Now he’s back in Belarus again, and helped the Americans open up with a convincing 6-1 victory over the host nation in Friday’s opening exchanges.
“It’s exciting to be back and I’m enjoying the experience so far,” he said after that win. “The Belarusian fans were great tonight, even though they were cheering against me this time. It’s a lot of fun coming back here.”
Returning in international competition also has its benefits as the language barrier crumbles away. “It’s definitely easier to talk to more players because everybody knows English,” Stapleton smiled.
Language isn’t the only challenge facing North American imports arriving in Europe. From fundamentals like different sized ice to the subtle differences in style and attitude on different sides of the Atlantic, trans-continental hockey is an opportunity and a test at the same time.
But for a player with extensive European experience – Stapleton spent two seasons in Helsinki with Jokerit and is now continuing his KHL career with Ak Bars Kazan – the challenge of a different sporting environment is something he thrives on.
“Being in the KHL, especially, has prepared me to take part in this kind of tournament,” Stapleton said. “But being in an international event is a bit different. It’s about representing my country, playing for my friends back home.”
Despite its hockey pedigree, Belarus is not a well-known country in the west and much of the coverage of the former Soviet republic takes a critical view of its post-Communist progress. But Stapleton speaks warmly of his year in Minsk.
“From the moment I got here I felt comfortable,” he said. “Minsk is a great city and the team we had at that time really helped. Everyone was really friendly with me so it wasn’t difficult to settle.”
And Stapleton is far from alone in that: Dynamo Minsk has had several international recruits during its KHL history, including prominent names such as Finland’s Ville Peltonen. A few of them have even adopted Belarusian citizenship, including Geoff Platt, a former team-mate of Stapleton’s who lined up against him when the U.S.A. played Belarus.
“It was a bit funny to see Geoff in a Belarus jersey, knowing that he’s Canadian,” Stapleton said. “But he’s a great player and he’s had a great career. He deserves to play international hockey and I’m sure he’ll enjoy this tournament.”
As for Platt himself, a veteran of five seasons at Dynamo before switching to Lokomotiv Yaroslavl this season, the prospect of representing his adopted country in a much-hyped competition on home ice was sometimes an anxious experience.
“I was a bit nervous preparing for this game,” he said. “The lead up to the game, the warm-up was all a bit tense. But after the first 10 minutes I found my game and felt better.”
The opening of Belarus’ World Championship was a greatly patriotic affair, with an address from President Alexander Lukashenko concluding a colourful opening ceremony. But it’s personal loyalties that mean more to Platt.
“I was here for a long time and I’ve got a lot of acquaintances, both at Dynamo and on the national team,” he said. “When it comes down to it I’m playing for a team and the guys around me. We all have the same objective: to represent the team and be successful.”