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Stars Look Toward Winter Olympics

by Ken Sins / Dallas Stars

For several of the Stars, the past few weeks have been nerve-wracking on several levels.

First and foremost, they've been focused on advancing their team into a more playoff-friendly position in the Western Conference standings. They've also had the holidays as distractions.

Another nagging issue for some: announcements for spots on various national teams for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver in February.

Stars captain Brenden Morrow earned a spot on Team Canada, with the feisty left wing bringing grit and penalty-killing skills to the host squad. Needless to say, Morrow was honored by the selection, spending a sleepless night in anticipation.

Defenseman Karlis Skrastins will represent Latvia, and left wing Loui Eriksson earned a berth on the Swedish team, the defending champs. Right wing Jere Lehtinen will skate for Finland in the tournament for the fifth time. The Finns captured the silver in 2006. 

Making the 23-man national team was a thrill for Eriksson, especially since he'll be joining Swedish hockey hero Peter Forsberg. As a kid, Eriksson idolized Forsberg, whose shootout goal won the gold medal for Sweden over Team Canada in the 1994 Olympics.

Once again, the Swedes are loaded with talent, and Eriksson is happy to serve a complementary role on a collection of stars that includes not only Forsberg, but also Nicklas Lindstrom, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg and Henrik Lundqvist.

"It's a big one this year because it's in Canada and it's big in Sweden because we won it the last time,'' Eriksson said. "It'll be tough to defend it.''

Mike Modano was considered a possibility for the U.S. team, but the Stars' all-time leading scorer was out of the lineup for 13 games at the start of the season with a rib injury that was slow to heal. That didn't help his cause.

Still, Modano was disappointed, but at the same time he understood U.S. Olympic hockey general manager Brian Burke was seeking younger legs. The 39-year-old Modano has been on three U.S. teams and the Michigan native knew this would be his last chance at skating for his country.

There are challenges involved with the hiatus for the Olympics, not only for the players who'll be in Vancouver but for those who'll be on a lengthy layoff. Coaches will be tasked with the challenge of keeping players in game condition even though there will be no games on the schedule.

With a three-game road trip before the break, the Stars won't play in Dallas for 23 days.

Dallas' last home game before the schedule is suspended is Feb. 6 against the Phoenix Coyotes. The Stars won't play again at the AAC until March 2 against the Los Angeles Kings.

That length of downtime can work two ways: players not involved in the Olympics will have a chance to heal nagging injuries and come back fresh, or they can lose their edge.

Stars coach Marc Crawford has seen good and bad aftereffects from previous Winter Olympics.

Of course, the greatest danger is an injury to a key player during the international competition.

"You always have to look at it that players want to be there and as a coach, you want what they want,'' Crawford said. "But selfishly, you worry. But you also look at the positives that can happen. The last Olympics, I was coaching in Vancouver, and it did wonders for the Swedish players on our team. Their play went way up afterward. But we had three defensemen who came back hurt. So it ended up being tough. And one guy who wanted to go but chose not to was Markus Naslund and I think in some ways he regretted it because it was such a big happening for their country.

"If you have a lot of players going to the Olympics, you hope they do well and it's a good experience. Because then those players come back really charged. But if it's a negative experience, I've seen it go the other way.''

Bottom line: the Olympic tournament is a tremendous spectacle, a must-see for even the most casual hockey fan.

"It's a great sidebar to the season,'' Crawford said. "The players really like playing in the Olympics. It's such a passionately-followed event.''

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