The Vancouver Canucks will boast seven Olympians competing in men’s hockey. To celebrate this, Canucks.com has been featuring a different Olympian each week leading up to the games. This week we bring you Pavol Demitra, forward with Team Slovakia.
When Pavol Demitra tweaked his shoulder attempting to hit Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Brian Campbell in the second game of the Western Conference semifinals last season, the injury was thought to be minor at worst.
Demitra said he was just shaken up and after being revaluated, his status was day-to-day with the Canucks forward intent on returning to the line-up after missing only a single game.
But then he missed two games, then three, then four.
Things went from bad to worse for the 35-year-old as he was forced to undergo shoulder surgery for torn front and back rotator cuffs suffered during the run-in with Campbell.
Two shoulder surgeries were performed over the summer and Demitra was on the road to recovery before minor setbacks delayed his expected return in November.
After missing the first 47 games of the season, Demitra was back on the ice for the first time on January 16. He’s now played nine consecutive games and is slowly but surely returning to form having picked up points in two straight games with three in his last six outings.
That’s great news for both the Canucks and Team Slovakia, the squads set to benefit the most from a healthy Demitra.
Of Vancouver’s seven Olympians, clearly none went through as much adversity to make it to the Games than Demitra, who will be competing in the event for the third time.
From the Slovakian side of things, Demitra is like the guy bringing cake to the birthday party, it’s just not he same without him. Sure you could get along just fine in his absence, but it’s a real riot if here’s there.
The Slovaks are as tight as any team competing at the Games, especially the line that Demitra plays on alongside Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik. This trio doesn’t quite stack up to former St. Louis Blues threesome Demitra, Lubos Bartecko and Michal Handzus in terms of its nickname (they were known as the Slovak Pack), but the familiarity between Demitra, Hossa and Gaborik makes them one of the most lethal lines around.
“It’s just like here with the Canucks, we’ve got a very tight group there and we a lot of guys that have played a lot of games together,” Demitra told CanucksTV. “During the lockout I played with Hossa and Gaborik for a full year and every tournament we played we always kind of had those same lines with those same guys playing together. That’s why it’ll be easy for Slovakia, we’ll be ready in the first couple of days because guys have already played together for many years.”
With competitors becoming cohorts in the blink of an eye, how well a team meshes could be a separating factor between who rises and who sinks at the Games.
Slovakia may have an advantage in that area on paper, but the nation’s best finish at the Olympics was fifth in 2006 so they haven't been able to take advantage of it. Outside of that, gold, silver and bronze wins at the World Championships between 2000 and 2003 are the only podium finishes Slovakia has been able to produce.
Tight-knit or not, a top three placing will be in the cards for the Slovakians if they win. Win early and win often. Win by a landslide and win in overtime. Just win.
“Everybody is very excited about it and now we just have to play good hockey," said Demitra, who has three goals and seven assists in eight games at the Olympics. "You definitely want to win as many games as you can and get as far as you can go obviously, and that’s what makes the tournament fun. You don’t want to start losing; it’s definitely not fun losing.”
The Games will pin Slovakia against Russia, Latvia and archrival Czech Republic in Group B with the winner, and possibly the second place finisher depending on how things play out, receiving a bye to the quarterfinals.
Some teams have Team Canada in their sights, others are aiming up the Americans or Swedes, but not Slovakia. According to Demitra, they want to beat the Czechs more than anyone. For countries that used to be so close (Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic in 1993), there is a major rivalry that has formed between the two.
“Slovakia played great hockey (at the Games in 2006), we beat Russia, we beat the USA and we’ve been so close to beating Czechs,” said a frustrated Demitra.
“Slovakia has never beat Czechs (at the Olympics). One time I was part of the team that beat the Czechs, but they’re kind of always our problem and we can’t play against those guys.”
Regardless of what the outcome of Slovakia’s game versus the Czech Republic is (it’s the opening match of the tournament for both teams), Demitra recognizes how fortunate he is just to be suiting up.
He’s definitely a wildcard for Team Slovakia because after all, a smooth sea never made a skilled mariner and this past year was anything but smooth sailing for Demitra.