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Players hoping for a shot at Olympic gold

Monday, 02.16.2009 / 10:00 AM / All-Access Vancouver

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas was like any other young American on that cold February day in 1980 when the United States shocked the world with a stunning 4-3 victory against the Soviet Union.

Thomas, 5-years-old at the time, and his father sat in front of the television at their home in Flint, Mich., and watched every shift of every period.

"It was a long time ago, but I can still remember my dad sending me to the store to buy cigarettes between periods," Thomas told NHL.com. "But I was able to get Boston Baked Beans out of the deal -- that and watching the Americans win the game were my rewards."

Watching American goalie Jim Craig turn away the best that the Soviet Union had to offer was another.

"While I always considered being a goalie before watching the Olympics, Jim Craig clinched it for me," Thomas said. "That's when I really wanted to be a goalie. Jim Craig became my hero. It's been a dream of mine since I was 5 to play in the Olympics. It's still far enough away where you don't want to think about it too much, but if I were to get the opportunity, it would be a dream come true for me."

Thomas certainly isn't alone.

The Winter Olympics have inspired youngsters to pick up a hockey stick and join a little shinny with friends on the local pond in the neighborhood -- with or without skates. It wasn't until 1998 that the NHL first allowed its players to compete in the Olympics and they've certainly geared up for all the excitement and fanfare ever since.

The 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, which begin Feb. 16, 2010, and conclude with the gold-medal presentation Feb. 28, are no exception. Not surprisingly, ever since the NHL has participated in the Winter Games, three countries have earned gold medals with no country making it to the gold-medal game twice.

Defending champion Sweden defeated Finland in 2006, Canada edged the United States in '02 and the Czech Republic scored gold in '98 with a victory against Russia.

The 2010 Olympic Groups include Canada, the United States, Switzerland and Norway in Group A and Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Latvia in Group B. The final group, Group C, will feature the two teams from the 2006 Winter Olympics gold-medal game, Sweden and Finland, along with Belarus and Germany.

"Representing your country in the Olympics would be great," said Canadian-born defenseman Dan Boyle of San Jose. "I was on the taxi squad last time around (2006) and it was very tough for me to sit back and watch. Being in Vancouver, it would be great, so we'll see what happens."

"I sure hope I get that opportunity," said American hopeful Zach Parise of the Devils. "We went to Vancouver and you can see the city is getting ready for it. It's going to be an unbelievable place to have it. In the back of your mind, you're thinking about it and you definitely want to be there, but I'll use the same excuse -- it's a long ways away."

Calgary captain Jarome Iginla, who has twice participated for Team Canada in the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City (2002) and Torino (2006), would relish another shot.

"I've been very blessed to be a part of two Olympics and they were great experiences, especially winning a gold medal in Salt Lake," Iginla said. "Having a chance to play for Canada in Canada and possibly win a gold medal would be amazing. I know they'll be a lot of people watching and it would be great and as an athlete, that's what you want. I know there are so many players in Canada, so it's very deep and there are tough selections to be made. You'll have to get off to a good start in the season, so I'll work on that and work over the summer. It's one of those things where you'll switch gears in the summer when you realize just how close the Olympics are."

There's a possibility four regulars for the Flyers could earn spots on Finland's roster, including defensemen Kimmo Timonen, Ossi Vaananen and Lasse Kukkonen and goalie Antero Niittymaki, the MVP of the '06 Games.

The Finnish quartet has combined for six Olympic appearances, including three by Timonen.

"My best memories are winning a bronze (in '98) and one silver (in '06)," Timonen told NHL.com. "I was pretty bad at watching hockey when I was younger growing up in (Kuopio) Finland. I do remember watching Jari Kurri and those other guys who had great careers in the NHL. Obviously, those guys were in everyone's mind, but, for me, winning those medals were big."

Timonen, Kukkonen and Niittymaki each won a silver medal for Team Finland at the '06 Games in Torino. Vaananen was injured just before the Games began and was unable to participate.

"I was part of the Olympics in Salt Lake and it's just a great experience," Vaananen told NHL.com. "You live in the Olympic village and to have the chance to be around all the athletes from the different sports, from different countries, makes the whole atmosphere great. It's such an historic thing."

Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan understands the worldwide impact of the Olympics.

"The Olympics are bigger than hockey; it's kind of a global thing and it would be very special to be a part of it all," said the Alberta native. "There's so much passion and pride as a country, it's kind of bred into you so anyone who has an opportunity to play hockey would give anything to play for their country in that setting."

Chicago sophomore Jonathan Toews of Manitoba would consider it an honor to represent Team Canada.

"I think at any point it would be unbelievable, but the fact that it's on home soil in Vancouver and in a great city like that would be incredible so it would be a dream come true to be in an event like that," Toews said. "It's kind of similar to the All-Star Game being in Montreal. I was pretty fortunate and lucky to be a part of that so, who knows, if I keep working hard and if it does come true, that would be great and if not, I'll just keep dreaming and hopefully have another chance to do it."

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who finished 5-1 with a 2.33 GAA to help Team Sweden capture gold in '06, finds it hard to believe the Games are a year away.

"I can't believe it's so close; you think about it once in a while," he said. "You know it's going to be a great tournament in Vancouver."

Minnesota Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, a backup for Finland in '06, would certainly like another shot.

"I only practiced with the guys in '06 in Torino," Backstrom said. "I didn't dress for a game, but I can remember just to be around the Finnish team and the whole atmosphere, the whole Olympic village was unbelievable. You have to be there to see how really special it is."

NHL.com staff writer Dan Rosen contributed to this story.