SOCHI, Russia – Sitting on the plane amongst the plethora of his St. Louis Blues teammates who would also be participating in the Olympics, Alex Pietrangelo felt right at home, no different in some ways to the travel experience of any old road trip – save for the length of the journey, that is.
It wasn't until he touched base on the ground here in Sochi and separated from all but his Team Canada teammate and defensive partner Jay Bouwmeester that the magnitude of what lay ahead really set in.
The 24-year-old Pietrangelo is among the youngest to wear the red Maple Leaf in 2014 as youth infuses what was previously a veteran-laden squad. Like fellow youngsters 23-year-old Matt Duchene, 24-year-old Jamie Benn, 23-year-old John Tavares and 24-year-old P.K. Subban, he is getting his first opportunity (of many) on the grandest stage and his NHL head coach couldn't be happier for it.
"He's just going to get better," said Ken Hitchcock, the bench boss in St. Louis and an assistant coach for Team Canada. "Any time you can experience something like this, it makes you a better player."
The chance to train, practice and play amongst the country's very best and compete, in the days ahead, opposite the world's very best is a large part of the appeal as is the opportunity to represent Canada on the world stage. But in advising his Blues centerpiece prior to the Olympics, Hitchcock wanted Pietrangelo to absorb and understand just how high and intense the hockey will get, even amongst his own NHL teammates and future opponents.
"Like don't expect Patrick Berglund to be what he is. He's going to go up another level," Hitchcock said of the Blues centre, one among 10 players from St. Louis selected to play in these games, tied with Chicago and Detroit for the most in the NHL. "Don't expect Alex Steen to be what he is. He's going to go up another level and that's just the way it is.
"So don't be surprised because people play with passion ... Their sweaters and the crest on their sweaters is just as important for them as it is us. I said 'just don't be surprised by everybody's A-game when it's out there'."
Pietrangelo has also heeded the advice of Bouwmeester – who is set to participate in his second Olympics – peppering the 30-year-old in the days and weeks leading up to their arrival in Russia.
"I was able to pick his brain about the experience and he was pretty much bang on with everything he said," said Pietrangelo, who has 41 points in 57 games for the Blues this season.
The best part, Bouwmeester advised, was the opportunity to take in the Olympic experience alongside other Canadians, not just those on the two hockey teams, but skiers, curlers, skaters, those in sports unfamiliar to the King City, Ontario native.
"You see the skaters, you see the skiers on TV and you know that you're part of that group," Pietrangelo said. "You're sitting in the lunch hall, the dinner hall now and you see them and you say hi and then you go out there and watch them on TV, it's pretty special."
On the ice, it was absorbing the complexities of the bigger international ice surface and systems employed by head coach Mike Babcock. Technical questions leveled at Hitchcock at an instructive Tuesday afternoon practice.
"...he wanted to know, on defensive reads, what's his role because we play a different way [in St. Louis], especially on the back-check," Hitchcock said, noting Pietrangelo's studious nature.
The fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft is part of a youth revolution that's gradually crept into Team Canada and the hockey world. It was quietly prominent in Vancouver when a 21-year-old Jonathan Toews, 20-year-old Drew Doughty and 22-year-old Sidney Crosby all emerged at various points en route to gold, and it's risen to new heights in Sochi.
Gone from that triumphant squad on home turf are hardened veterans like Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, replaced by a new wave that includes Pietrangelo, Duchene, Subban, Benn and Tavares.
"We knew that when 2010 ended, there was going to be a changing of the guard," said Blues GM and Team Canada management member Doug Armstrong. "For quite of few of those players, their time had come. A lot of them are retired now. And you really can't keep these young players down."
That would include Pietrangelo, who has surged to the heights of the defensive position on a powerhouse Blues squad, one that is tied for second-best overall with 84 points at the break. Still in just his fourth full NHL season, he is sitting fourth among all NHL defenders in points this season while averaging more than 25 minutes per game on one of the league's preeminent defensive teams.
A member of two Canadian World Junior teams – including a gold-snatching squad in 2009 – Pietrangelo was brought along carefully by the St. Louis organization, who signed him to a seven-year, $45 million contract this past summer. He played in just 17 games in the two years that followed his draft, rare patience that is quickly being rewarded.
"It's hard to argue that right now," said Pietrangelo, gazing around at where he stood on Olympic ground. "It's a tough thing to go through as a young player. You always want to be playing at the highest level, but to see where I am right now, they were investing their time and money in me and they were going to make the best decision for me. That's how I looked at it. I'd like to think that it's working right now."