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The Verdict: Blackhawks answer the call for Olympic duty

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
(Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean)

After resisting any temptation to take a shower with his cell phone, Patrick Sharp emerged from behind the curtain Tuesday morning and noticed a message.

“Missed call from Missouri,” recounted Sharp. It was from Doug Armstrong, the St. Louis Blues’ Executive Vice President/General Manager who is serving on an elite executive board for Canada’s venture to the 2014 Winter Olympics next month in Sochi, Russia. Still wet behind the ears, Sharp retrieved a voicemail he will cherish forever.

“He congratulated me on making the team,” Sharp went on. “I dialed him back right away, didn’t get him, then called Dad back home in Thunder Bay, where I watched the games from Vancouver in 2010. Then Doug called back, and we talked a bit. I really wanted this. I’m thrilled.”

An hour or so later, Team Canada officials confirmed the obvious in Toronto—fellow Blackhawks Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith will defend their gold medals at these Winter Games. Those three shall join seven other members of the 2013 Stanley Cup champions—all of whom paused after practice at Johnny’s IceHouse West, shed helmets to fix their hair ever so slightly, then laughed as Andrew Shaw briefly took a knee before exiting stage left from a group picture to which he was not invited.

“Ten guys! That’s half our roster, pretty cool,” noted Patrick Kane. “We sent six to Vancouver. I guess that means we have a good team here in Chicago. And we could have a couple more before it’s over.”

Indeed, National Hockey League rosters are riven by injuries, with more than 100 upper or lower bodies ailing. So, Brent Seabrook and Brandon Saad might yet partake of the Madhouse on Madison reunion half a world away. If not, the Blackhawks can be seen on the tube at various odd hours, wearing the colors of and performing for their native lands.

A loaded Team Sweden selected Johnny Oduya, a 2010 Olympian, along with Niklas Hjalmarsson and Marcus Kruger.

Marian Hossa will participate in his fourth Winter Games, and Michal Handzus his third, for Slovakia. Michal Rozsival will play for the Czech Republic. And Kane shall be the face of the Americans, who took Canada to the limit before losing the gold-medal game in overtime in Vancouver.

“It’ll be great having so many of our guys over there,” said Kane. “Probably won’t see that much of them, except on the ice, because you stick with your own team’s schedule. But it will be a blast.”

Hjalmarsson was excited to be selected with his defense partner Oduya, although there is no guarantee that they will be a unit in Sochi. Kruger, a selfless and smart individual who fulfills multiple roles, was in first grade when a television was wheeled into his classroom during the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

“That’s when I really became aware of Olympic hockey,” he said. “I remember thinking then that it would be something to play for my country in a tournament like that.”

Rozsival, 35, won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks in June. Now this. Is it any wonder why he could not wipe that smile of his face?

“A great honor,” he said. “Very thankful.”

The Blackhawks’ last date at the United Center is January 26, and the next one is not until March 4—albeit the Soldier Field gala against the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 1 is a given for frenzied support. But in Sochi, Chicago’s "Terrific Ten" shall toil in what surely will feel like quintessential road games.

The Russians probably rate as favorites on the larger ice surface—200 feet by 100, compared with 200 by 85 in the NHL—where North American teams have encountered some difficulty. (Canada took gold on the bigger sheet in 2002 in fan-friendly Salt Lake City.) The Russians will be under intense pressure, having missed all medals for a second consecutive time in Vancouver.

But expectations for Canada are ceaseless, and that fits Sharp’s wheelhouse. When he was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers in 2005, the trade warranted only small print in Chicago. Sharp has since evolved into a rock-solid, all-purpose forward who thrives in prime time—21 goals, 38 points and a +11 plus/minus rating in 45 playoff games during two Stanley Cup conquests.

If, as some experts surmised, Sharp had been on the bubble, he certainly didn’t hurt his chances by bagging two hat tricks in his last five games, adding to his team-high total of 25 goals. A week ago, Armstrong traveled to the United Center on a reconnaissance mission. Honesty compelled him to admit that the side trip was based on intense interest by Team Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman in Sharp, who has become a shooting star.

He has been overlooked for much of his career. Then, Tuesday morning, he stepped out of the shower.

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