As the eyes of winter sports fans around the world turn toward Vancouver, B.C., in mid-February, those eyes belonging to hockey fans will have many Nashville Predators players and prospects to watch during the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.
With six current Predators and two prospects called to represent their respective nations in the Olympic hockey tournament, Nashville will be well represented when the puck drops Feb. 16. Shea Weber
(Canada), Marcel Goc (Germany), Alexander Sulzer (Germany), Martin Erat
(Czech Republic), Ryan Suter
(United States), and Patric Hornqvist
(Sweden) will all trade in their Predators blue for the colors of their homelands following Nashville’s Feb. 14 game in Pittsburgh.
Weber, Suter, and Hornqvist will all be making their Olympic debuts. Erat, Goc, and Sulzer will be returning for their second Olympic opportunity as all three played at the 2006 Games held in Torino, Italy.
Two European-based Nashville prospects were named to their countries’ Olympic teams as well, but it appears that one may not make the trip to North America. Alexander Radulov
will represent Russia, but Roman Josi
’s availability for Switzerland is in serious doubt. Radulov currently plays for Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League, and Josi for SC Bern of the Swiss League. In January, Josi sustained a broken finger at the World Junior Championships. He has been cleared to return the ice next week, but having been sidelined for more a month, Swiss head coach Ralph Kruger has indicated that Josi will remain in Europe.
Of the eight Predators players and prospects, seven of them are Nashville draftees, with Goc being the lone exception.
“Our scouts have done a great job, and it is once again reflected by the selections of the Olympic teams,” Predators President of Hockey Operations and General Manager David Poile said. “This is the best of the best, and we have really good representation.”
Asked if it is source of organizational pride to have eight Olympians hailing from seven different countries, Poile responded, “We are an equal opportunity organization.”
Poile will be in Vancouver serving in an official capacity as the Associate General Manager of Team USA, but will also have a vested interest in the Games that involve more than just the Americans.
There are 18 games that will be played in the Preliminary Round, and if Josi is able to play for Switzerland, 16 of the 18 will feature a Predator or prospect. Five of the games will feature Nashville organizational players on both of the competing teams.
Several Predators say that while they are looking forward to the Vancouver experience, they are thankful that the busy NHL schedule preceding the Olympics is keeping them from thinking about it too much beforehand.
“It hasn’t set in yet because everything is so intense right now,” Suter said. “Every game is worth so much. If I was worrying about the Olympics, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”
Despite it being his first Olympics, the 25-year-old Suter has represented Team USA seven times in international competition, including winning a gold medal at 2004 World Junior Championships. Suter is carrying a little extra responsibility into the Olympic tournament, as he was named to the team’s leadership group as one of the assistant captains. And there are always the reminders that he is the son of 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ gold medal winner Bob Suter and nephew of 2002 silver medalist Gary Suter as well.
With all of the pressure on Suter, his Predators defensive partner may have even more. A native of Sicamous, B.C., Weber will be participating in the Olympics virtually in his own backyard. He is one of four B.C. boys on the 23-man Team Canada roster. Hockey is far and away the highest profile sport in Canada and anything less than a gold medal will mean expectations have not been met to their fullest in the Great White North. Coming off a disastrous seventh place finish in Torino, the Canadians are looking for redemption.
“I’m pretty fortunate that our schedule has us playing every second day, so there is not a whole lot of time to think about that right now,” Weber said. “I’m sure that once that Feb. 14 game against Pittsburgh is over, I will shift my focus.”
Weber will need to shift that focus quickly. Once Nashville’s Valentine’s Day matinee against the Penguins ends, he and the rest of the Predators Olympians will need to fly across North America and completely change their mindsets. Suter will go from the defensive partner Weber has shared a blue line with nearly his entire NHL career to a foe who will play for the team Canada will likely be fighting against for first place in Group A and possibly for a medal after that. Conversely, Mike Babcock, head coach of the Detroit Red Wings, will go from heated Central Division rival to Team Canada’s bench boss who Weber hopes will lead him to Olympic gold.
Like Weber and Suter, Hornqvist is not letting the Olympics distract from the current job at hand.
“If you think about Vancouver right now, you are not going to play that well,“ Hornqvist said. “Right now Nashville is in my head and in my mind. I want to do a good job for Nashville right now, and when the Olympics come up, then I will think about that.”
Hornqvist is the second-youngest player on the veteran-laden Swedish team. A lot of those older players were on Team Sweden when they defeated their Nordic neighbor Finland for the gold medal in Torino.
As the only Predator with an Olympic medal, Erat is looking to add to the bronze that he and his fellow Czechs won in 2006.
“You always go to the tournament to win,” Erat said. “It’s great when the coaching staff is hard on themselves and puts pressure on the players, and I like to play under pressure. You get so much experience to bring back to the club and make it work here.”
For his part, Goc is looking forward to helping Germany rebound from a poor performance at the 2009 World Championships, and he sees the Olympics as the perfect stage to do so.
“After last year, we didn’t do very well at the World Championships,” Goc said. “We definitely want to make up for last year.”
There are some intriguing matchups in the Preliminary Round in Vancouver. Canada-U.S., Russia-Czech Republic, and Sweden-Finland are all early games that will be played between traditional hockey rivals. As the teams advance into the Quarterfinal Round, the games will be played with all the passion and intensity of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
At the conclusion of the Olympic tournament, only three countries will be awarded medals, meaning the other nine nations will leave Vancouver empty-handed. There will not be much time to celebrate victories or lament losses though, the Predators have a home game two days after Feb. 28’s Gold Medal Game. From there, it is a 21-game fight for a playoff spot where Weber can go back to liking Suter and trying to disappoint Babcock and his Red Wings.