Four Islanders received word Monday that they were one step closer to representing their home country in Olympic competition.
Travis Hamonic and John Tavares will be on the 47-man roster heading to Team Canada’s Orientation Camp, taking place in Calgary in late August. Kyle Okposo was selected to Team USA’s camp, which will be held in the Washington DC area at the same time, while Evgeni Nabokov was named to Team Russia's camp.
“Being a Canadian, it doesn’t get any bigger than that,” Hamonic said of the potential to don the maple leaf for Team Canada in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. “I had the opportunity to wear the Canadian jersey before. Needless to say, that’s one of the best hockey experiences I’ve ever had in my life. You realize when you’re wearing that jersey that you’re playing for a bigger cause. Not yourself, not your hometown, not your province, but for an entire nation behind you. There’s a lot of responsibility and pride that comes with wearing that. It’s pretty humbling to receive an invite for anything at the Olympic level.”
Hamonic and Tavares will battle 45 other Canadian players for a spot on the final roster. Okposo is one of 48 U.S. players hoping to make the final cut. The August orientation camps serve as an opportunity for each team to bring its players together as a group, present playing systems and discuss international rules and regulations. Each country’s staff will make their individual player evaluations during the first 3-4 months of the NHL regular season before whittling down the list to a final roster.
“[Team USA] is going to put the best team on the ice in Sochi, and hopefully I’ll be a part of that,” Okposo said. “I’ve just got to have a good start to the year and come in ready to play the first half, and hopefully the rest will take care of itself. It would be a tremendous honor to wear the USA crest.”
Of the four Islanders, only Nabokov has Olympic experience, though all have represented their country during other international tournaments. Nabokov played for Russia at the last two Winter Olympics, and has three World Championship tournaments (two with Russia, one with Kazakhstan) on his resume as well. The trio of Tavares, Hamonic and Okposo has combined for six World Championship appearances and five World Junior Championship appearances, as well as a variety of Under-17 and 18 tournaments.
Tavares says nothing, however, on his international resume would top playing for Team Canada at the Olympic Games.
“I think as a hockey player, the greatest achievement would be lifting the Stanley Cup, but as an athlete, the greatest achievement would be winning a gold medal at the Olympics,” Tavares said. “To have that opportunity, especially for Canada, with what the game means to our people and our country, it’d be a dream come true to play.”
Hamonic was playing for the Western Hockey League’s Brandon Wheat Kings during the last Winter Olympics in 2010, when Canada skated to a 3-2 overtime victory in the Gold Medal game over the United States. He vividly remembers watching the final with his billet family as the US squad overcame a 2-0 deficit to force the extra period.
“We were on pins and needles like everyone else, and at that point, you’re just the biggest fan hoping for your country to win,” Hamonic said. “There’s way more behind it than just a hockey game. There’s a lot of pride on the line. I remember when (Sidney) Crosby scored the goal I jumped up so high that I hit my head on the ceiling.”
Tavares, a rookie that season, was with Islander teammates Matt Moulson and Doug Weight – both Americans – watching the game.
“You couldn’t write it any better way for Canadians,” Tavares said. “Winning on home soil against our great rival, the Americans, in overtime on Sidney’s goal. Let’s just say I was a big fan that day.”
Okposo was home in Minnesota watching the game, and although it didn’t end well for Team USA, he says the hype around the team during their undefeated run to the Gold Medal Game served as inspiration to many stateside.
“It lit a spark for hockey in the US especially,” Okposo said. “That team’s success was highly publicized, and the last game got a lot of viewership, which was good for the game. I definitely want to be playing in a game like that.”
If Okposo makes the final roster for the US, he’ll be making his first trip to Russia. Tavares and Hamonic have each played in junior tournaments there. Okposo would be the fifth Islander named to the US Olympic squad (1998: Bryan Berard; 2006: Rick DiPietro, Mark Parrish, Jason Blake) since NHL players were first allowed to participate in 1998. Tavares and Hamonic hope to become the third and fourth Islanders named to Team Canada’s Olympic roster (1998: Trevor Linden; 2002: Michael Peca). Nabokov, whose two previous Olympic appearances came during his tenure with the San Jose Sharks, would be the fifth Islander selected for the Russian side (1998: Sergei Nemchinov; 2002: Oleg Kvasha, Alexei Yashin; 2006: Yashin, Alexei Zhitnik).
Other countries participating in the 12-team tournament include Slovenia, Slovakia, Austria, Finland, Norway, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Switzerland and Sweden. Islanders forward Michael Grabner is widely projected to represent Austria, while Defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky hopes to represent Slovakia for the fifth consecutive Olympic Games; he has played for Slovakia 17 times in international competition overall.