|Jarkko Ruutu and Finland went on a strong run through the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics tournament before falling to current Senators teammate Daniel Alfredsson and Sweden in the gold-medal game (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images).
There is no bigger sporting stage in the world, a hallowed place upon which so few are even privileged to be able to perform.
So it follows that there is nothing quite like Olympic gold and all the glory that goes along with it. The simple fact that, no matter what the sport, such champions are declared only once every four years merely adds an exclamation point beyond such monumental achievement.
It is why, even 18 years later, Alex Kovalev can ponder the Winter Olympic ice hockey gold he earned in 1992 in Albertville, France, and quickly put it on the same pedestal as the game’s holy grail.
“It was pretty much the same as (winning) the Stanley Cup,” said Kovalev, who was one of the first Russians to have his name engraved on Lord Stanley’s famous mug as a member of the New York Rangers in 1994. “That Olympics was definitely, for me, one of the (most) amazing things.
“I was still a young kid, I was 20 years old … I sometimes still try to go back and try to remember how everything went and when we came home and all that, and it still is hard to really swallow and imagine that it happened.”
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson
has similar thoughts whenever he contemplates the gold medal Sweden won in 2006 in Torino, Italy, with a 3-2 victory over Finland — a team which included current Ottawa teammate Jarkko Ruutu.
“When you think about it once in a while or you see (the medal) in a drawer back home, it brings back great memories,” said Alfredsson, one of five Senators who'll take part in the Vancouver 2010 Games starting next week. “You’re very proud. Not a lot of people get to experience (the Olympics) or win a gold medal. That’s something that will always be with me.”
Even Ruutu, whose Finns didn’t lose a game in the 2006 Olympic tournament until the final — including a victory over Senators defenceman Anton Volchenkov and Russia in the semifinals — can find a silver lining in that moment.
“It was disappointing, especially when we came up short in the final after we played so well throughout the tournament,” said Ruutu, who also represented Finland at the 2002 Salt Lake Games. “But at the end, you look at it and the tradition and how hard it is to win a gold medal or any medal … you have to be fortunate to be healthy and to even get a chance to play for your country.”
"When you think about it once in a while or you see (the medal) in a drawer back home, it brings back great memories. You’re very proud. Not a lot of people get to experience (the Olympics) or win a gold medal. That’s something that will always be with me ... It's watched all over the world and there's no bigger stage for an athletes than the Olympics." - Daniel Alfredsson
The Olympics is also different because of its historic past and the fact hockey is merely one of a number of sports that make up the five-ring circus every quadrennial.
“You’re with so many different athletes that get together every four years to try to be at their best,” said Alfredsson, who also wore the Tre Kronor at the Olympics in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, and Salt Lake. “It’s fun to trade stories with those people. It’s watched all over the world and there’s no bigger stage for an athlete than the Olympics.”
No wonder the celebrations are so joyous in hockey-loving nations such as Sweden, which only tasted Olympic hockey gold once previously – in 1994 in Lillehammer, on the famed Peter Forsberg shootout goal that vanquished Canada.
“It was huge (back home),” said Alfredsson.
Kovalev still remembers the joy at the Moscow airport in 1992, when the Unified Team — a collection of six former Soviet republics — beat Canada for gold in Albertville. Not that he saw much of the party.
“We got to the airport and they couldn’t open the luggage compartment in the airplane,” said Kovalev, who also owns a bronze medal from Salt Lake. “We sat there until 5 in the morning, and we arrived at 10 (the night before). People in the airport were celebrating, but it looked like we were going to stay there for the next 24 hours and celebrate (on the plane). But it was still exciting.”
It’s the Olympics, after all. Nothing else truly compares.