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Going for the Gold

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
To many of us, the Winter Olympics are a pleasant diversion. The NHL shuts down and a significant number of top players head to the snowy Olympics venue. Meanwhile, college basketball and hockey and the NBA continue holding our attention.

To the chosen NHL players, however, the Olympics are a big deal. The players become international all-stars, skating against the best players in the world.

Some, like New York Islanders forward Mark Parrish, always dreamed of playing in the Olympics. To others, like Flyers winger Mike Knuble, the Olympics were a distant dream. Knuble and Parrish were selected for the United States Olympic team that will compete in Turin, Italy in February. Knuble and Parrish are first-time selections for the U.S. team.

Genuinely appreciative, Knuble said, "When I turned pro (1995), the Olympic team was still just amateurs and then, when they went to the Dream Team format, the way my career was going, it seemed to me that this would be out of reach for me. But from 2002 to 2006, my career has been building, and it has built up to this. It's an incredible honor and something I just never thought as an athlete that I would achieve."

Until the 2002-03 season, Knuble's season high in goals was 15, in 1998-99 with the New York Rangers. In 2002-03, Knuble collected 30 goals for Boston. The next season, he scored 21 for the Bruins. This season, he is playing on the uber-productive Peter Forsberg Simon Gagne line. Knuble prepped for the Olympics by playing for Team USA in the last world championships. (In case you're wondering how the Toronto-born Knuble is playing for Team USA, his parents are U.S. citizens. They were living in Toronto when Mike was born. Knuble, 33, played four seasons for the University of Michigan. In the off season he lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan).

One of Knuble's Olympic teammates is Robert Esche. The Flyers goaltender is from Whitesboro, New York. Esche's grandmother, Leona Ziminski, was the first person he called with news that he is an Olympian. "She's been telling me forever (that he would be an Olympian), even before I started playing hockey," the goaltender said. "I have no idea why, except that I always played sports: football, baseball.

"She's a very tough lady. She said, `You SOB, you made it,'' and then she started crying. I told her it makes me feel good to make you cry. Being able to tell her that I made it was definitely a really good moment in my life."

The Islanders' Parrish sounded like most first-time Olympians, saying, "I'm very excited and honored to get the chance to represent my country. It's always been a dream of mine to play in the Olympics."

Parrish was born in Bloomington, Minnesota, and played college hockey at St. Cloud State (Minn.).

Defenseman Derian Hatcher is the third Flyers player chosen for the U.S. Olympic team. Hatcher, born Sterling Heights, Michigan, played on the 1998 Olympic team.

Another Flyers Olympics connection is assistant general manager Paul Holmgren. The former Flyers player and coach, from St. Paul, Minnesota, is the assistant general manager of the Olympic squad. Don Waddell, the Atlanta Thrashers vice president and general manager, is GM of the U.S. team. Waddell was born in Detroit and played college hockey at Northern Michigan University.

Carolina Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette is the Olympic team's head coach. The native of Norwood, Massachusetts, coached Team USA to a bronze medal in the 2004 World Championships. Laviolette was captain of the 1994 U.S. Olympic team.

The average age of the American team is 31.2 years. None of the goalies -- Esche, the Islanders' Rick DiPietro and Tampa's John Grahame - has Olympic experience.

Simon Gagne also will be in Turin. The Flyers high scoring winger helped Canada win the Olympic gold in 2002.

Much to his dismay, former Flyers forward Jeremy Roenick will not be skating and shooting in Turin. Before the Olympic teams were selected, Roenick, a two-time U.S. Olympian, said that if he weren't picked, Team USA officials better hope that Roenick isn't hired by NBC as a television analyst. Roenick said he would be rooting for Canada. Who knows if the talkative "JR" was serious.

Waddell said selections were made largely based on how players were performing this season. At the time, Roenick had just six goals and seven assists in 32 games. Case closed.

One of the interesting choices for the U.S. team is Chris Chelios. The "Grand Old Man" is the NHL will be 44 years old when the Turin games begin. The Detroit Red Wings defenseman is on the team because he is still an effective player and an outstanding leader. Chelios is a two-time Olympic team captain.

Talking about the Chicago-born Chelios, Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland told the Detroit Free Press, "We brought him back for his ability to play, but also because of his leadership and competitiveness. When he's on your team, he believes your team is going to win, and he has an impact on the players around him."

One major negative about NHL players participating in the Olympics is it disrupts the NHL season. Since the Olympics are held during the NHL season, the league posts the "closed for business" sign for just over two weeks. Not the best idea for a league trying to recover from last season's lockout. However, there's no alternative if the U.S. and Canada want the best players.

Sad loss for the NHL

The news that Larry Robinson was stepping down as coach of the the New Jersey Devils was stunning and sad. Robinson, 54, said the stress of coaching was causing him severe health problems, including headaches that prevented him from moving his head.

Robinson is one of the finest people I've met in my years of covering hockey. As a player, roaming the Montreal blue line with Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe, Robinson was superb. The Hockey Hall of Famer played 20 seasons and helped the Canadiens win six Stanley Cups.

As a player, Robinson was always a gentleman with the media. After he joined the Canadiens, the Ontario native learned to speak French. The gesture was
much appreciated by his French-speaking teammates and the French Canadian media.

Robinson indicated that he may eventually return to the NHL, but as an assistant coach. "I've never walked away from anything before," he said during an emotional press conference. "I still think that I can coach. I just don't know that, at this stage of my life, if I have the patience anymore and the wherewithal to be able to be a head coach."

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of ``Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of ``The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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