The 2010 Winter Olympics are here, and the best hockey players in the world have flocked to Vancouver to participate in this year's Games. Hockey Hall of Famer Brett Hull
played for the United States in the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, and the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, and to this day, Hull is in awe of the whole idea of the Olympics, which is an ancient form of competition going back centuries to Greece.
The first hockey games at the Olympics took place during the 1920 Summer Games in Belgium, with Canada winning gold. It must have been an interesting series of games to watch as there was an extra player -- a rover -- on the ice, and the ice surface was considerably smaller than standard NHL or international rinks. The Winnipeg Falcons represented Canada. The U.S. (with four Canadian players on the roster) was there, as were teams from Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, France and Belgium.
Olympics organizers moved hockey to the Winter Games in 1924. Canada has won seven Olympic gold medals, as did the Soviet Union. The U.S. and Sweden have won two golds each, and a team of former Soviet players under the banner of the Unified Team made up of six former Soviet Union republics won the 1992 Gold. The NHL allowed players from the League to participate in the Olympics for the first time in 1998, with the Czech Republic winning gold.
Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak
is the only player in Olympic history to be on three gold medalists, and he also won a silver. Former NHL defenseman Igor Kravchuk
also was on four medal-winning teams -- two golds, a silver and a bronze.
The first Olympics might have taken place in 776 B.C. There probably wasn't a hockey competition at the first Games, but Hull said just the thought of being asked to be in the Olympics is the ultimate honor.
"You know what? To be a part of something that big, that historic, if you think about when it started back in the ancient Greek and Roman times, I mean, to say that you were there and actually winning a silver medal (in 2002), which everyone wants to win the gold ... but you know what, to have an Olympic medal is hard to put into words how much it means to you," said Hull. "People always say to me, you were born in Canada (and lived in Vancouver, not far from the Olympic venues), but I have lived in the United States for an awful long time and I am just as much an American as I am a Canadian, so I was very proud to represent the United States."
Because Hull, who has dual citizenship, decided early in his career to play for various U.S. national teams, he got to play for Herb Brooks at the Salt Lake Games in '02. Brooks was the coach of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" U.S. team, which was made up of a bunch of college kids that upset the Soviet Union and beat Finland to win the gold.
For Hull, playing for Brooks in an Olympics was just icing on the cake, even though Canada beat the U.S. in the final. The Canadians took the gold with a 5-2 win.
"That was a big thrill for me, too," said Hull. "We had Keith Tkachuk
injured, and I think if he wasn't injured, I think it is kind of a different game. To be able to play for a guy like Herbie Brooks, he made me want to play my best every time I was on the ice, not that you always didn't. But you could be on your worst ... you could have the flu, you could have your worst day ever, but he made you want to play the game. He had a special gift.
"He was a very special guy. I would compare him to a (football coach) Lou Holtz -- there are only a few guys who come along in a lifetime that can inspire young people to be what he did. He is greatly missed in the world of hockey. He was very intense but he knew how to do it."
There is a high level of intensity on the ice during the Olympics, but there also was one other aspect of the Olympics that can't be duplicated during the NHL season, or in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Olympic Village, where all the athletes reside.
"The greatest part for me was living in the Olympic Village with all of the other athletes and all the other countries," said Hull. "I thought it was fantastic."
Hull did not take part in one of the Olympics' greatest traditions -- pin trading.
"No, I am not a pin trader," he said. "It is ridiculous how big (pin trading) is."
Hull never minded playing in the Olympics, even though they came at 60 games into the always-tough NHL season, but he does see a silver lining for those for didn't make it to Nagano, Salt Lake, Turin or Vancouver.
"I think the guys who don't play in the Olympics love it more -- they get a 2 1/2-week break," he said.
Where do the Olympic appearances rank in the world of hockey championships after winning a Stanley Cup? For Hull, it is the second-biggest hockey tournament, far ahead of the World Cup of Hockey and the World Championships. Hull scored a key goal to help propel the U.S. to win the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, but that event really wasn't much of a memorable experience for him.
"Yeah, there is no comparison," he said. "The World Cup to me was always kind of they are taking away my time to rest. The Olympics is such ... it is so emotional."