MONTREAL - Canadiens fans will have six good reasons to be glued to their television sets come February. Half a dozen Canadiens players will be representing their respective countries at the Olympic Winter Games in Turin, which begin Feb. 10, 2006.
Jan Bulis (Czech Republic), Saku Koivu (Finland), Alex Kovalev (Russia), Andrei Markov (Russia) Mark Streit (Switzerland) and Richard Zednik (Slovakia) were all included in their countries' 23-man roster. For half, the Olympics are familiar territory. For the other three, it's a whole new ballgame. Koivu, Kovalev and Streit have been there before, while Bulis, Markov and Zednik will be making their Olympic debuts.
Not only will Zednik be appearing in his first Winter Games, but the 2006 edition marks the first time that Slovakia won't have to go through a qualification round before playing for a chance at an Olympic medal. In the past, certain teams had to play their way in but Slovakia couldn't get all its players together and therefore hadn't ever qualified. With the change, Zednik is confident with his country's roster.
"We've got a good young guy in [Ottawa Senators defenseman Andrej] Meszaros, who's a good skater. Also [Los Angeles Kings' Lubomir] Visnovsky is good and then we've got some big guys in [Zdeno] Chara and [Washington's Ivan] Majesky, so we should be pretty good in back," noted the 29-year-old winger.
While some might question the strength between the pipes, the Bystrica native isn't too worried.
"We've got [Peter] Budaj, who's played a few games in Colorado and [Karol] Krizan. I've heard Krizan has the best rating in Sweden, and Sweden's a good league."
Another country that's had to work hard to earn an Olympic berth is Switzerland. Led by Canadiens' defenseman Mark Streit, the Swiss squad has found some success on the international stage recently, ranking eighth overall in the 2005 IIHF World Rankings, right behind the "Big Seven." Though he knows it won't be easy, the team captain is ready for what lies ahead.
"I think it's going to be a big challenge for the team, obviously," admitted the Swiss team's captain. "It's always great to play against teams like Canada, Finland, the Czechs. I'm very happy to have the opportunity to go to the Olympics again and I think we have a great team, good speed, skill and I think with the perfect game we can come away with some wins against the big teams."
Streit isn't the only one who will captain his country in Turin. Canadiens captain Saku Koivu will once again have the "C" on his jersey in his third Olympic appearance. There weren't too many changes on the Finnish roster, however there was one notable addition: his younger brother Mikko, of the Minnesota Wild.
"We played on the World Cup team together and that was a lot of fun but obviously the Olympics are something that if an athlete can experience that atmosphere and play for their country, for me, it's been one of the highlights of my career so far. He's a young player who's going to get a great opportunity, a great experience and it's going to be a lot of fun," said Koivu.
While he's looking forward to February, the 31-year-old center hasn't focused too much on it. His main priority has been his nursing his nagging groin injury so he can get back on the ice with his NHL teammates.
"In the back of your mind, you think about it but right now I'm focusing everything I can to just come back to the lineup here and play well. If you have the momentum going for yourself in your NHL team, it's going to be a lot easier to go and adjust and play there."
Someone who knows a thing or two about momentum is two-time Olympic medalist Alex Kovalev. A gold medal in 1992 and a bronze just four years ago in Salt Lake, the Russian sniper will have some company on the flight to Italy as defenseman Andrei Markov will experience the Olympics for the first time.
Five of the six Canadiens named to Olympic rosters seemed to be no-brainers, for the most part. The lone "surprise" came in the inclusion of forward Jan Bulis, who is thrilled at the opportunity presented to him.
"It was definitely great news for me. I was really excited to hear that but I really wasn't thinking that I'd make it," he acknowledged. "I had the experience after last season where I didn't go to the World Championships after the season I had in the Czech Republic. I'm really looking forward to it and help the team in any way I can."
Bulis spent the lockout playing for Pardubice HC in the Czech Republic, where he ended the season with 49 points in 45 games, finishing third in team scoring; his 24 goals were second only to Milan Hejduk (Colorado) and Petr Sykora (Washington), who had 25 apiece.
His solid season and a national team coaching change worked doubly in Bulis' favor. Czech national coach Alois Hadamczik saw quite a bit of the 27-year-old as Hadamczik's Czech league squad faced off with Pardubice in the playoffs, where Bulis racked up 11 points in 16 games.
"I think the coaching change definitely helped me. I hadn't ever had the experience before with the guys, two or three years ago. I guess it worked out and now it's up to me how I'll do and whatever I'm going to show."
Zednik was happy for his good friend, always hoping he'd get the chance to showcase his abilities at the international level. And while they've been buddies since their days with the Capitals, it would seem the friendship won't cross the Atlantic.
"I told him, once you get to the Olympics, look for me, I'm going to go after you," joked Zednik.
Heather Engel is the site assistant for canadiens.com