For a second, forget the credibility Blackhawks forward Alex DeBrincat has built this month as a key contributor to Team USA at the IIHF World Championship in Denmark.
DeBrincat sounded more excited to share how he established himself in another sport he plays regularly against three fellow Hawks while passing time at the team hotel during the three-week tournament.
"The best ping-pong player among us is probably me," DeBrincat said Wednesday in a phone interview. "(Jordan) Oesterle is pretty good. Kaner is right behind him. But it's definitely me."
The Year of "The Cat" continues abroad for the brightest spot in a bleak season for the Hawks.
While the franchise's familiar core aged quicker than expected in 2017-18 as the Hawks missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade, DeBrincat grew up fast. He became the first rookie to lead the team in goals since Tuomo Ruutu in 2003-04. Only two NHL rookies scored more than his 28.
"On a personal note, the year was good to me, but moving forward nobody was satisfied with the season we had," said DeBrincat, 20. "I didn't have too many expectations, so anything was better than what I was thinking."
A year ago, DeBrincat worried if he would make the team out of training camp, a 5-foot-7, 165-pound curiosity who the Hawks wondered if he could do more than score goals in droves. A year later, the Hawks' breakthrough player downplayed finishing with one more goal than Patrick Kane and diminished his role in developing into a difference-maker for Team USA.
In a 3-2 overtime victory last week against Latvia, for instance, DeBrincat earned player of the game honors with two assists. Spending most of his time on the third line – but occasionally playing alongside Kane on a line that captures the imagination of Hawks fans – DeBrincat has one goal and seven assists in seven games. That gives him the same point total as more proven NHL players such as Johnny Gaudreau of the Flames and Dylan Larkin of the Red Wings.
"Honestly, you're playing with so many skilled players, it makes your life easier," DeBrincat said. "Playing with guys who always find you and always are in the right places is where my success comes from. It's pretty easy to play with the amount of skill we have on this team."
The other Hawks on Team USA are Kane – who has dominated by setting U.S. records for goals (17) and assists (11) – and defensemen Oesterle and Connor Murphy. General manager Stan Bowman serves on the national team advisory group, and the progress of the 39th pick in 2016 has helped restore the Hawks' reputation for drafting and developing talent. Former Hawk Scott Darling is one of three goalies for Team USA, which will try to bounce back from Wednesday's loss to Finland when it faces the Czech Republic at 9:15 a.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals.
The opportunity to represent his country means enough to DeBrincat without having to add the satisfaction of wearing a Team USA jersey 18 months after he was cut at world junior selection camp for reasons nobody fully understood. But instead of getting bitter, DeBrincat got better and stayed focused on a future he vowed not to let the past affect.
"They had a good team and ended up winning gold without me, so I don't know if I use it as fuel anymore," DeBrincat said of getting cut. "It was tough to swallow, but there are no hard feelings. Representing your country is an honor, and right now we're just trying to win gold again."
Right now, the Hawks should be trying to find ways to win the Western Conference finals or recovering from a tough playoff series loss instead of entering their sixth week of the offseason. The void the playoffs created on the hockey calendar in Chicago has been hard to fill. But the time at the World Championship is time well-spent, especially for DeBrincat, a potential consistent 30-goal scorer if he keeps improving at this rate.
"Just playing with a lot of great players and meeting new faces is fun," DeBrincat said. "We have four Hawks here, and you stick with those people. You sure get to know them a lot better because you do things differently than at home. It's been a good time for me."
Not all the fun has come on the ice. Besides the ping-pong games that gave DeBrincat bragging rights, he has sampled enough Danish food to call it delicious and spent many days with his Hawks teammates on walking tours of Herning, a bustling city of 49,000. They have bonded over dinners, ice cream and movies, the latest "Avengers: Infinity War."
DeBrincat misses his dog, Ralph, a Shiba Inu with his own Instagram account (@mr – ralph – schneebly). Ralph's bio reads: "My dad likes hockey but I prefer tennis balls. #DeBrindog."
"He's in Michigan with my parents, but he's coming to Chicago," DeBrincat said. "Over here, I've gotten to know Kaner and Murph a lot better. Jordan and I were good friends throughout the year and pretty close anyway. But all of us are definitely closer by coming to this tournament."
For Team USA, if all goes well, it will end Sunday in Copenhagen with the gold-medal game.
For DeBrincat, this feels more like a beginning.