When the National Hockey League shuts down for two weeks this February, the vast majority of the league's players will spend the down time visiting family, nursing injuries, or simply resting up for the remainder of the season. A select few others, however, will be participating in the pinnacle for any athlete--the Olympic Games. Since 1998, NHL players have been permitted to participate in the Olympic men's ice hockey tournament, which features the world's most skilled practitioners of the sport questing to win a gold medal in the name of their homeland.
"Obviously it's a great honor," said goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who is among five players on the Predators roster who will be making the trip to the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. "It's once every four years. You don't know if you're going to get another chance, so it's real special."
|The three Czech Olympians (From R to L) Tomas Vokoun, Martin Erat and Marek Zidlicky. |
Joining Vokoun on the Czech Republic squad will be defenseman Marek Zidlicky and forward Martin Erat
. Defenseman Kimmo Timonen will represent Finland, and blueliner Danny Markov will play for his homeland of Russia. A trio of Predators prospects--Alexander Sulzer (Germany), Denis Kulyash
(Russia) and Jukka Hentunen (Finland)--will also take part in the 12-day tournament, while Predators equipment manager Pete Rogers will be working behind the scenes and on the bench for Team USA.
"All of them are very deserving," Predators head coach Barry Trotz said. "They are going to be key members to their teams. Obviously guys like Tomas and Kimmo will be key members, and I think Danny Markov will be a bigger key to the Russian team than a lot of people think. Because they don't have a lot of those type of d, and he'll have a bigger impact. I think [for] Martin Erat
, it will help his game. It will be a good experience for him."
While each Predator selected has experience in international tournaments like the World Championship or the World Cup of Hockey, all but Timonen and Markov will be making their Olympic debuts. No matter whether it's their first, second or third appearance, the Predators participants uniformly place the Olympic Games on a higher plane than other international competition.
"For all guys, it's big," said Erat, whose one previous experience playing on a world stage came at the 1998 Under-18 World Junior Championship. "All nations are watching the Games, and it's great to play against the best players."
"I think it's the biggest event in the world regardless of anything else," Vokoun said. "It's the most followed by viewers. If you're in sports, the Olympics have to be the top of what you can achieve."
The two Predators who have already achieved the milestone--Timonen and Markov--have an appreciation for what it takes to compete at that level. Timonen played for Team Finland in 1998 and 2002, registering one assist at each event and winning a bronze medal in his 1998 debut. Markov, who has a 2002 bronze-medal-winning performance with Team Russia under his belt, posted one assist in five games.
"It's a big thing every time you win a medal," said Timonen, whose mother has his bronze hardware in Finland. Still, athletes don't play in the Olympics with the goal of winning silver or bronze. "It's good," Markov said of his prize, "but gold is better."
Just who will be wearing gold when the tournament ends is anyone's guess. When asked to handicap his team's chances, Zidlicky was demure. "We have a very good team, but everybody has a very good team," the 5'11", 190-pound native of Most said. "We will see after the Olympics."
Team Canada, which has no representatives from Nashville despite fantastic seasons by Steve Sullivan and Paul Kariya, is the reigning Olympic champion. The powerhouse from north of the border also won the 2004 World Cup of Hockey and two of the last three World Championships. Led by a formidable who's who of hockey that includes stingy goaltender Martin Brodeur, explosive forwards Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley, and total-package defensemen Chris Pronger and Rob Blake, Canada is a favorite to come out on top. The country could be the first repeat gold medalists since the USSR/Russia won three straight in 1984, 1988 and 1992.
The Czech Republic team, with its trio of Predators on the roster, enters the Olympics as the winner of the most recent international competition, the 2005 World Championship. Vokoun was brilliant while backstopping the team, posting a 7-1 record and receiving the Directorate's Best Goaltender Award. "I think we have as good a chance as anybody," Vokoun said in reference to the Olympics, "but there are probably five teams you can say the same thing about. It depends on how you actually play over there. We have a good team, but that doesn't mean we're going to play good. If we play good and things go well, we've definitely got to be one of the favorites."
"We've got a great goaltender," Erat said. "We've got a great defense. I think it's going to be about the little things that are going to decide games. They are going to be tight games. We can be on the top, but we can lose one game and it's going to be over."
The games might not be quite as close as Erat suggests, though, given his team's goaltending tandem of Vokoun and two-time NHL MVP Dominik Hasek, and an offense that boasts names like Jaromir Jagr, Milan Hejduk, and Robert Lang. The question on all Predators fans' lips is, "Which goalkeeper will the Czechs start?" "I'd hate to be the Czech national team coach and have to decide between [Vokoun] and Hasek," Predators head coach Barry Trotz said after Vokoun's first shutout of 2005-06. "I've got my vote."
Russia, meanwhile, has skill in spades. Offensive talents Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin will provide plenty of scoring punch, though the withdrawal of Nikolai Khabibulin due to injury makes goaltending a bit of a question mark. The defense is a healthy blend of rugged battlers, like Markov and Darius Kasparaitis, and blueline point producers, such as Alexei Zhitnik and Sergei Gonchar. "I don't like to say anything [about our chances]," Markov said. "Lots of [countries] have good players, good teams."
Joining Team Russia as a late injury replacement is Predators' 2004 eighth-round draft pick Denis Kulyash
, a 6'2", 199-pound defenseman who this season has posted 12 goals, three assists and 111 penalty minutes in 40 games with Dynamo Moscow of the Russian Elite League.
Alexander Sulzer, another Predators defensive prospect, will suit up for Germany--a team that's a longshot to win a medal. Drafted by Nashville in the third round of the 2003 Entry Draft, the 6'1", 207-pound blueliner has three goal, 15 assists, 82 penalty minutes and a +19 rating in 45 games with the DEG Metro Stars of the German Elite League this season.
Other teams that should be in the running include Slovakia, Sweden and the United States--a country looking for it's first men's hockey gold since the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980. While Predators rookie defenseman and future U.S. Olympian Ryan Suter
didn't make the cut this time, the Predators still have a representative on Team USA: head equipment manager Pete Rogers. In addition to taking care of all of the Predators' equipment needs for eight seasons, Rogers has filled the same role for Team USA at six World Championships, the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, and the 2004 Deutschland Cup. He first became involved with the U.S. program during the Predators' inaugural season, when Nashville general manager David Poile was also the GM of the U.S. national team. "I went over [to Switzerland] with Team USA and did the World Championships, and got asked to go back again and again and again."
The trip to Torino will fulfill a dream Rogers has had as long as he's worked in hockey. "It's more or less a reward for all the World Championships that I've worked for [Team USA]," he said. "When you do World Championships, you're gone four or five weeks. You go to some not-so-glamorous places. This is more or less a reward for just being part of their program for as long as I have."
Also in the hunt for a medal is Timonen's Finland squad. The country challenged Canada for
|Kimmo Timonen will lead the defensive corp for Team Finland. |
the World Cup of Hockey championship in 2004, but the withdrawal of its top two goalies--Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen--from the Olympic roster has raised doubts about the team's chances. Flyers' netminder Antero Niittymaki moves to the No. 1 position in goal while a mix of NHL veterans (Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne) and youth (Joni Pitkanen, Jussi Jokinen) round out the solid roster. In addition to Timonen, Predators fans should keep an eye out for 31-year-old prospect Jukka Hentunen, a 5'10", 194-pound winger who has amassed 37 points in 38 games for HC Lugano of the Swiss League this season.
"I think we've got as good a chance as everybody," Timonen said of Team Finland. "There are probably better teams name-wise, but you never know. It's a short tournament. Whoever plays as a team is going to win the tournament."
The first games between the 12 countries begin on February 15, and considering the fact that the final day of NHL play is February 12, there won't be much time for practice. "I think we get there and we play the next day, so pretty much we don't have any time," Vokoun said.
Fortunately, many of the players have grown up playing alongside their Olympic teammates and will need less time to connect than strangers would. "I think it's a little bit the same team from the World Championships last year, and I know everybody," Zidlicky said, referring to his Czech squad.
"It's going to be hard, because you've got a new team and you don't have any time to get the lines together," said Erat, whose relative lack of international experience makes him somewhat less familiar with the national team. "In the season, you're playing with some players all 82 games. There you're going to play just nine games if you want to go to the final. We have to just get ready for everything and be ready for every shift."
Most of the countries called players together last summer to assess talent and get a head start on team chemistry. "It was just a couple days' camp," Erat said of one Czech Republic team gathering, "just to meet the other guys and play some scrimmages."
Jumping from the NHL to the Olympics and back--both mentally and physically--will probably present the biggest challenge for those participating. "It will be hard, definitely," Vokoun said. "Everybody else gets time off and can kind of recoup. We have to travel between continents and play and travel back and play again. It's going to be definitely physically challenging."
Players like Timonen are trying to keep the two hockey universes compartmentalized. "Probably when we're done here [in the NHL] and we're flying overseas, then you start thinking about the Olympics and go from there," he said.
Similarly, this select group of Nashville representatives will on one hand share this experience of a lifetime while, on the other, being forced to forgo its Predators bonds once the puck is dropped on two weeks of elite international competition.
"When you play for your country in a World Championship or in the Olympics or whatever, friendship sort of goes out the door for that three-hour period," Trotz said. "It's war. If Danny Markov's trying to stop a Martin Erat
from coming down the wall, he's going to take him out. That's just what it's all about. And after, they'll be best friends again."