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The Olympians: Sami Salo

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks
The XXI Olympic Winter Games will be here in a flash with Vancouver becoming home to some of the greatest athletes in the world for a majestic two week period.

The Vancouver Canucks could boast as many as eight Olympians competing in men’s hockey. To celebrate this, will feature a different Olympic hopeful each Friday leading up to the games. This week we bring you Sami Salo.

Since joining the Vancouver Canucks in 2002, Sami Salo’s facial expressions have changed about as much as his game.

Rarely, if ever, does this steadfast defenceman, known for his blistering slap shot, crack a smile, with the exception of a grin, holler and fist pump that follows a big goal.

Bring up the 2010 Olympics and representing Team Finland in Vancouver and, wouldn’t you know it, Salo’s got an ear-to-ear smile.

This will be Salo’s third trip to the Games, which ties him with Pavol Demitra and Christian Ehrhoff for a Canucks team-high, and at the age of 35, Salo knows this will be his last chance at Olympic glory.

Salo and the Fins came within a goal of Sweden in the gold medal final at the 2006 Winter Olympic in Turin, Italy. The Lions, as the team is known in Finland, settled for silver, although because of injury Salo was forced to settle for a seat in the press box for the championship match.

For Salo standards, the oft-injured blueliner has been relatively healthy this season having played 37 of 44 possible games. He’s got four goals and seven assists so far and has helped the Canucks establish the sixth lowest goals allowed in the NHL. Suffice to say he’s fine-tuning his game in preparation to go up against the most elite players in the world.

“This is going to be my third Olympics and I played a World Cup, which also had the best players of every country, and it’s a great feeling when I step on the ice and you look on the other side and it doesn’t matter what team you’re playing against, you know that they’re going to have their best players,” Salo told CanucksTV in a recent interview.

“It’s a tournament that has all the best players from all around the world and you just think how fortunate you are to be able to play in those games and it’s a good meter for yourself too to really see where you’re at when you’re playing against the top players.”

Salo joins the likes of Phoenix’s Sami Lepisto, Buffalo’s Toni Lydman, Joni Pitkanen from Carolina and Philadelphia’s Kimmo Timonen on Finland’s blueline. Lepisto, Lydman and Pitkanen will all be making their Olympic debuts, while Salo and Timonen, already a three-time participant of the Games, will provide the veteran leadership required for Finland to have any chance of putting together another run at gold.

In total Finland will 12 returning Olympians, which gives the Scandinavian country a leg up on a lot of teams in one of the most important aspects of the tournament. At most teams will have two days together as a group and there are only five round robin games, meaning players need to gel quickly.

Salo doesn’t think this will be a problem. Finnish players are like superglue, they stick and bond in no time at all.

“It is difficult but I think most of the guys have played in the national teams in the years before and the systems haven’t really changed at all, guys really get along well with all the other players so it’s kind of really easy to find that game,” Salo, who has produced one goal and three assists in 10 Olympic contests.

“It’s always the team that finds its game the quickest that is usually the one that is going to win it because it’s such a short time. With only a few games to play, every game is so important to really show that you have a chance to be one of the two teams that are competing for that gold.

“I’ve been fortunate to be in groups that have been pulling together right from the start and I can’t wait to get another chance for sure.”

Growing up in Turku, Finland, Salo was similar to Daniel and Henrik Sedin in that he didn’t grow up with grand visions of playing in the NHL. Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mike Bossy took a back seat to Esa Peltonen, Heikki Riihiranta and Jari Kurri, currently the general manager of Team Finland, for their play on the international stage.

Finnish hockey was readily available for young, influential Salo, so representing his country became the be all and end all of hockey.

“The NHL game weren’t broadcast like they are now so you might have seen one or two games a year from the NHL and you could see the national team games a lot more so that was kind of the goal you were looking yourself into.

“You try to improve your game and maybe one day you’re able to wear that jersey.”

The end game for Salo, who will don a Finnish jersey for the third consecutive Games, is now unfinished business in Olympic gold and although not at lot of people are giving Finland much of a chance to repeat as finalists, the team is definitely a snake in the grass that could do some damage to favourites such as Canada, United States and Russia.

The more harm done, the bigger Salo’s smile will be once the Games end.

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