Why a pure passion for hockey motivates Dylan Larkin

ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – If you look up “rink rat” in the dictionary, there’s a good chance that you’ll find a photo of Detroit Red Wings’ forward Dylan Larkin next to the definition.

Currently leading Team USA in scoring with two goals and four assists in six games at the IIHF World Championship, Larkin has seized every possible opportunity get on the ice since he wrapped up his freshman year of college at Michigan.

“I just want to play hockey,” summarized Larkin, when asked about his busy schedule over the past 12 months.

The first stop was Prague in May of 2015, where he recorded one assist in 10 games in a primarily defensive role. The U.S. team stunned the host Czechs with a 3-0 shutout win to claim the World Championship bronze medal.

Days after that tournament wrapped up, Larkin signed his entry-level contract with the Red Wings and was immediately assigned to the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL. He contributed three goals and two assists in six playoff games before the Utica Comets ended the Griffins’ season in early June.

After that, it was on to the NHL, where the 19-year-old started the 2015-16 season on the Red Wings’ top line and finished his rookie year with 23 goals and 45 points. He scored 10 of those goals by the end of November, before his production tapered off.

“As the season went on, the level of play picked up and so did the number of games, so I was a bit tired,” he admitted following Team USA’s 4-0 win over France on May 12 at the 2016 World Championship in Russia. “I think the hardest thing was mentally every night trying to bring your A Game and be prepared. I learned a ton from that experience and I know what to expect going into a summer of training.”

Tired or not, Larkin lept at the chance to once again pull on the red, white and blue jersey for Team USA after the Red Wings were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the NHL playoffs.

“I knew it would be fun coming over here and it has been a great time,” said Larkin, who is playing top-line minutes with Nick Foligno and Patrick Maroon and is a key member of the U.S. power-play and penalty-killing units. “I don’t think there’s much comparison from this year to last year. It feels pretty good to be one of the go-to guys.”

The tournament has also offered Larkin an opportunity to reconnect with a couple of his former teammates from the University of Michigan. Forwards J.T. Compher and Tyler Motte are also playing for Team USA, along with their freshman linemate Kyle Connor.

“I have a lot of the guys from Michigan that are my good buddies and some of the older guys like (captain) Matt Hendricks that I got to meet last year and Murph (assistant captain Connor Murphy) that are also good friends. It’s a great group. Pretty young and we’re having fun.”

After a last-minute 3-2 loss to Germany on Sunday, Team USA sits in fourth place in Group B with a 3-0-0-3 record for nine points. Their final round-robin game will come on Tuesday against the only team that can prevent them from earning a spot in the medal round, Slovakia. If the Slovaks win in regulation time, they’ll earn three points to tie the Americans in the standings and will advance with a win in the tiebreaker, which is determined by the result of the head-to-head meeting between the teams.

If the Americans win the game or lose in overtime or a shootout, they’re in.

Following the win over France last Thursday, Larkin said he liked his team’s chances of making noise in the medal round again this year. “Yeah, I do. I really do. I think we’ve become stronger every game and every day.”

Personally, Larkin sees growth in his game between last year, when he skated in Prague, and this year’s world championship in Russia. But he’s still striving for more. “For me, looking back, looking in the mirror I want to be even better. It does feel good to come out here and be able to put up some offense and be a go-to guy, but I’m certainly not satisfied.”