VANCOUVER, B.C. – Of the seven Vancouver Canucks who will represent their countries at the 2010 Olympics, perhaps no national team selection has gone as unheralded as that of smooth-skating German defenceman Christian Ehrhoff.
But the 27-year-old Ehrhoff, who by competing in his third Winter Games will have more Olympic appearances than fellow Canucks Roberto Luongo and the Sedin twins, has been far from underappreciated by his teammates so far this season.
Ehrhoff has been Vancouver’s most consistent defender on both ends of the ice, leading the league with a plus-minus rating of 21 while also scoring nine goals, good for second-most among NHL blue-liners.
After being traded to the Canucks from San Jose last summer, following a campaign in which he finished a miserable minus 12, Ehrhoff said his goals for his first season in Vancouver were simple: play consistent hockey and avoid any let-downs.
He’s met those expectations and now the Moers, Germany, native says he’s excited to compete in an Olympic Games that will be held in his new hometown.
“It’s a huge honour,” Ehrhoff said Monday after practice.
“It’s going to be special being played in Vancouver. Canadian sports and especially hockey fans are great and it’s going to be a great tournament.”
Ehrhoff recorded one goal and one assist in five games during the 2006 Turin Olympics. He also suited up for Germany at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City and called both experiences unforgettable.
“In 2002, I was only 19 years old and I played against all the best players in the world and it was just a ‘wow’ event for me,” he said.
“And definitely, all the things around the Olympic village are special too.”
The Ehrhoff trade, in which he and Brad Lukowich came to Vancouver for Daniel Rahimi and Patrick White last August, was announced on the same day the Canucks signed another defenceman, power play specialist Mathieu Schneider.
But Ehrhoff’s strong play – he’s scored four power-play goals -essentially rendered Schneider obsolete. The 40-year-old was put on waivers and assigned to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League on Sunday.
Henrik Sedin, who’s enjoying a breakthrough campaign of his own for Vancouver, said Ehrhoff has been a critical component of the team this season.
“He’s stepped right in and played great for us,” Henrik said Monday, the same day he was named the NHL’s player of the month for December.
“He brings a lot to the table. He’s good offensively, he’s really strong defensively and jumps up in the rush. It makes it easier for us forwards to create chances, too.”
That praise was seconded by Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault.
“The skating the puck out of our end when he sees the opportunity, the power play poise that he brings,” Vigneault said.
“We knew in San Jose that he was a good defenceman and he had good stats but when you get to see him every day and the enthusiasm that he brings to the rink, we’ve got a real quality player there.”
Joining Ehrhoff next month as three-time Olympians will be fellow Canucks Pavol Demitra, of Slovakia, and Sami Salo, of Finland.
Demitra, who hasn’t played a game for Vancouver this season due to a shoulder injury, practised with the team Monday and said he hopes to be back in the lineup in the next couple of weeks.
“I’m not shooting slapshots yet but the wristshot is feeling good,” he said.
While the Vancouver Olympics will be an exciting time, Demitra said the Games won’t be without some sadness.
“For me and for Slovakia, my age group and obviously the group I was growing up with, that’s going to be the last big tournament for us,” he said.
Demitra’s impending return to the Vancouver lineup coincides with a stretch that’s seen the Canucks vault all the way up to seventh in the Western Conference standings.
The team is 7-2-1 in its last 10 games and just returned home from a 3-0-1 road trip.
With a 14-game road trip sandwiched around the Olympics, homestands like the one that begins Tuesday against a struggling Columbus squad could prove critical to Vancouver’s playoff aspirations.
One player they’ll have to do without for the next few months is defenceman Kevin Bieksa.
Bieksa, who missed 47 games two seasons ago when his calf was lacerated by the skate blade of Nashville’s Vernon Fiddler, suffered severed tendons in his ankle late last month when he was cut by the skate of Phoenix’s Petr Prucha.
“I’ve been in this game a long time, you rarely see this injury and to see Kevin have two of those, I’m amazed,” Vigneault said.
“The timeline is undetermined. Obviously, it’s going to be a couple of months here.”
Lukowich, who hasn’t played a game for Vancouver so far this season, took Bieksa’s spot at practice Monday.