torchbearer for Kansas City in the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi flashed a fine local touch Wednesday by wearing a Royals hat to an event in his honor.
And Henrik Ødegaard’s impact in the area and the appreciation of the elite status conferred upon him last week were evident in the turnout of 125 or so hockey fans waiting for his autograph in the Missouri Mavericks team store at the Independence Events Center.
So what if he has been here only since October? And that it would take what he calls “a long conversation” to explain how to really pronounce his last name, which we can’t quite figure out how to type on this keyboard so have pasted in instead.
From what I can tell, it’s pronounced somewhere between anduh-dee-gard and oh-dee-gard
And never mind that Henrik Ødegaard will be playing not for the United States but for Norway.
He’s an Olympian, and he’s at least part Kansas City’s now.
And maybe all the more so since he’s evidently all we’ve got this time around.
Certainly, the pesky distinction of nationality matters not to the Mavs fan who wore a T-shirt that read “I’M CHEERING FOR NORWAY” or to the dozens who gobbled up all the commemorative long-sleeved T-shirts and photos in stock or to those who showed up speaking his native tongue to him and others parading the Norwegian flag at Mavs games.
“That is crazy for me,” Ødegaard said. “Coming from a small country, 24 hours from your home country, and you see your flag in the stands. I really appreciate that.”
This ruckus over him, he notes with a smile, is far more attention than he’d be getting at home near Oslo.
And it has left him somewhere between thrilled and overwhelmed, said Madeleine Stroth, the Mavericks’ public-relations and community-relations manager.
But more than anything, Ødegaard is appreciative of the opportunity he’s dreamed of since he turned 6 the day of the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, about two hours from his home.
Because he’s played on the Norwegian national team and was in what he called “a pre-camp” in September, Ødegaard, 25, had allowed himself reasonable hope of making the Olympic team.
Still, that didn’t prepare him for the news, and not just because it was delivered at 3 a.m. here after his father saw the announcement in a news conference in Norway and couldn’t wait to call.
“It was hard to get asleep again,” said Ødegaard, who began learning English around the time he was learning to skate. “It was just something, with seeing your name on the roster. I think the Olympics is every athlete’s dream.
“That’s the biggest thing you can do, especially representing your country. And to get to play in Russia, too, where hockey is the main event, makes it even bigger.”
It’s not quite all that in Norway, perhaps in part because the population is about 5 million people — around a million fewer than in the state of Missouri – and in part because cross-country skiing and speed skating have been the nation’s marquee Winter Games sports.
Or to put it in a context that Ødegaard said he recently read, “There are more hockey referees in the Toronto area than there are hockey players in Norway. So that sort of sums it up.”
In more ways than one: Team Norway’s Feb. 13 Olympic opener is against Canada, not only the apparent land of a million referees but also the defending gold medalist from Vancouver 2010 thanks to Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal against the U.S. that Ødegaard said “was like it was written before it even happened.”
As for how Ødegaard happened to make it here, the son of a father who works with computers and mother who teaches began playing professionally at 17 even as he was working on his business degree.
After the world championships last year, he said, a scout with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League contacted him to gauge his interest in playing in the United States.
“I’ve got nothing to lose,” said Ødegaard, who after one game there was sent to the Mavericks, the Wolves’ Central Hockey League affiliate.
Here, Ødegaard has emerged as a fan favorite for a team that draws 5,318 a game in part because of his demeanor and accessibility but also because of his work ethic and playing style.
All of which somehow comes together in how he describes his game.
“I’m not really skilled, or something like that, but I work hard,” he said. “I don’t put up any good numbers, or anything like that. But I take pride in being solid defensively and being a player teammates and the coaches can trust.”
And one fans have embraced.
“It’s really special, and I’ve got much more support than I can ever dream of,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to make a good figure in the Olympics.”