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Thursday, December 25, 2014

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Micflikier cracks Team Canada lineup loaded with stars

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Jacob Micflikier

At 28, Jacob Micflikier still has lots of hockey ahead of him, but he doesn’t think he’s stepping out onto a limb to say his Spengler Cup experience is likely to to be the pinnacle of his career.

Not only did he get to wear the Canadian national team jersey, but he made a team that was loaded with NHL stars in a lockout year. And they won a gold medal.

Not bad for someone who’s toiled doggedly in the minor leagues, hoping for a shot at “The Show.”

After six years in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) and the American Hockey League (AHL), Micflikier has taken his act on the road, signing with EHC Biel of the Swiss A league. While playing on a line with Boston Bruins’ young star, Tyler Seguin, he was asked to play for Canada at the Spengler Cup.

An annual mid-winter tournament first held in 1923, the Spengler Cup brings together top European club teams and a collection of Canadians playing in Europe. This year’s collection of Canucks featured many NHL stars.

Micflikier, who has 15 goals and 24 assists for Biel, was part of a Canadian roster that included Seguin, Bruins stalwart Patrice Bergeron, Ottawa Senator Jason Spezza, New York Islander John Tavares, Colorado Avalanche Matt Duchene, Edmonton Oiler Ryan Smyth and San Jose Sharks defenceman Jason Demers, who is also Jewish.

Playing on a line with Duchene and Jason Williams, another ex-NHLer, the trio added speed and energy to an already stacked lineup. Although he didn’t get any points, Micflikier generated several quality scoring chances and helped Team Canada to the cup win.

“It was definitely a cool experience,” he said on the phone from Switzerland. “These were NHL superstars, not just bump and grind guys.”

Generally known for his goal-scoring and puck-dishing abilities, on a team loaded with offensive players, Micflikier was asked “to bring a different element” to the tournament. He and his linemates used their speed and skill to negate the opposition’s chances.

“We played well together,” he said.

The games were broadcast in Canada, and Micflikier, at 5-8 and 180 pounds, stood out because of his stature and because he generated scoring chances on a regular basis.

“To play with those guys was kind of cool for me… It was kind of a feather in my cap,” he said.

With the tournament and the NHL lockout both over, Micflikier is settling back into a regular routine with Biel. So far in his pro career, he’s been something of a hockey nomad, playing in Springfield, Stockton, Florida, Albany, Charlotte and Hershey over the past six years.

Life in Switzerland is something else entirely. It’s his first trip to Europe, and having his girlfriend and dog with him helps keep him grounded. Language is a barrier, and simple tasks such as shopping are no longer activities you can take for granted.

Still, he’s being paid to play hockey, which in of itself isn’t half bad. The team provides him with an apartment and car, both free of charge. And his salary is tax-free in Switzerland.

A person could get used to that sort of lifestyle, but it’s not the NHL, which has been his dream destination.

Last season it looked for a moment like he was finally getting his shot. After all those years in the minors, the Washington Capitals signed him to a one-year contract. He attended the Caps’ training camp, but couldn’t crack the lineup. Instead it was back to the AHL, this time with Hershey. In 57 games, Micflikier scored 56 points.

Returning to the AHL this season was always an option, “but in terms of career longevity… staying in Europe is probably in the cards for me,” he said.

Micflikier has always put up good numbers wherever he’s played. At the University of New Hampshire, he scored 150 points in 154 games, was named assistant captain in his senior year and helped the team win the 2006-07 Hockey East regular season title. Last season, playing for the Bears, he scored 21 goals and added 35 assists in 57 games. The year before, he recorded 61 points (29 goals, 32 assists) in 78 games with the Charlotte Checkers, finishing second on the team in goals and third in points.

Altogether, in 254 career AHL games, Micflikier has registered 182 points (76 goals, 106 assists) and 184 penalty minutes.

At only 180 pounds, Micflikier is certainly on the smaller side of current NHL – or even AHL – forwards. But that doesn’t mean he gets pushed around, as his penalty totals suggest. “I’ve had no problems with physicality in the AHL,” he said.

Like other players of smaller stature, he’s had to show he can take the rough going, altering his game when needed to be more physical. “I’ve showed I can handle it,” he said.

European hockey has proven to be a bit different from the North American brand of hockey he’s used to. Not only is it “easier on the body,” but the pace is different. Swiss league players are very good skaters, but things happen more quickly on the smaller North American ice surfaces.

“There are not as many scoring opportunities, and the pace is not as fast as back home,” Micflikier said.

The differences haven’t hurt his stats: when he played with Seguin, the two were tied for the team lead in points. Micflikier was the playmaker, Seguin the big-bodied guy who had an NHL-calibre shot.

“I found him for lots of opportunities,” he said. “When you play with better players, it brings your game up.”

Just ask the guys on the Spengler Cup team.

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