SOCHI, Russia – The best Winter Olympics celebration for USA Hockey might happen somewhere other than Sochi.
It could be delivered by Louie Wheeler, the 15-month-old son of Robbinsdale, Minn., NHL player Blake Wheeler.
Louie has developed uncanny skill with his mini-hockey stick, but his father – a winger for the Winnipeg Jets – puffs his chest most at the spirited goal celebrations.
"He's got an obsession with mini hockey sticks," Wheeler said Wednesday after a U.S. practice in preparation for Thursday's opener against Slovakia. "It's crazy. He picked it up a couple of months ago, and he hasn't put it down since. He flips it around, shoots it the right way, he's got a goal celebration and everything.
"If you asked him, 'What do you do when Louie scores?' he goes 'Goooaaal!' It's pretty fun."
A medal at the 2014 Games would be cause for father and son celebrations alike.
Wheeler was one of the final players selected for the U.S. team, according to a behind-the-scenes report on the selection process by ESPN.com. One of the factors that caused the team to pick Wheeler was his skating ability.
The bigger international ice will alter the game for North American teams, while fitting Wheeler well.
"I love it. You get a couple extra feet on each side," said Wheeler, 27. "It changes the game. There's not as much dumping and chasing. There's a lot more puck possession. I'm a guy who tries to skate. Speed is a weapon for me."
In 60 games this season for Winnipeg, Wheeler has scored 22 goals with 26 assists. He led the Jets in scoring during their first season returning to the NFL in 2011-12 with 64 points in 80 games.
Wheeler said his role could change game by game for the U.S., which features stars from across the NHL.
"Going in, it's obviously more limited than I'm used to in Winnipeg," he said. "I'm just going to be prepared for whatever. When my number is called, just go out and do your best.
"It's a little bit of an adjustment, but to be a part of this group is pretty special. So you do whatever it takes to try and help out."
The U.S. is expected to contend for top medals, along with Canada, Russia and Sweden. Wheeler said the 2010 Games in Vancouver showed, though, that caution is merited.
"I think everyone's dangerous," he said. "You look at the last Olympics, Slovakia surprised a lot of people. There's going to be a surprise at this one too. You can't just look at all the so-called powers and be like, Canada, Russia. You've got to focus on who you're playing."
One other focus for Wheeler: He plans to pick up a souvenir for Louie.
"I've seen some people walking around with little Sochi mini hockey sticks , so I'll definitely be picking up a couple of those for him," he said.