NHL teammates put allegiances to country at forefront in Olympics
There will be no mercy in the Olympics.
The seven Penguins in Sochi, Russia, have explained that, in these upcoming two weeks, countries come before NHL teammates.
But those sentiments expressed a special meaning for Olli Maatta, the gentle teenager who admires superstar teammates such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“My teammates here in Pittsburgh are so great,” Maatta said. “Everyone has been so nice to me. I love it here, and the guys are great. But during the Olympics, we're wearing different uniforms. There will be no friends during the Olympics. We are friends off the ice. But on the ice, the other guys are, you know, the enemy.”
The Penguins find themselves in the crosshairs of potential sharing of secrets among Olympic teams.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the top-line centers on arguably the two favorites — Canada and Russia. Team USA coach Dan Bylsma, assistant coach Tony Granato and shutdown defensive pair Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik will attempt to stop them.
“I suspect there will be plenty of insider trading,” Martin said. “We'll be talking about all the guys we know and what their tendencies are and what we think are the best ways to go about playing them.”
The risk? Letting your fellow countrymen in on the secrets of your NHL teammates — and having that backfire later in the season.
So will Martin and Orpik let Team USA teammates Ryan Callahan and Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers know the best ways to stop Crosby or Malkin?
“Of course,” Martin said. “We all want to win a gold medal.”
It goes both ways.
The Capitals' John Carlson plays with Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin. Callahan and McDonaugh play in front of star goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Sweden's presumed starter, in New York.
The tips will be flying.
“It's the nature of the tournament,” Martin said. “We will talk and share information.”
Crosby and Malkin previously have played against one another on the international stage.
And they know that, linked as NHL teammates, a spotlight will be on them in the game's biggest theater.
“We don't talk about it, to be honest,” Crosby said. “I know it's something that other people talk about a lot, but we don't really mention it. No one wants to lose, and we're all competitors. And we know the time is coming.”
Martin, who will be playing in the Olympics for the first time, said seeing teammates on the other bench at the start of the tournament might be uneasy.
“It's hard to ignore when it's your teammates playing on the other team,” Martin said. “I've been in Pittsburgh for a few years. I know these guys. I like them. But once the puck drops, everything changes.”
Jussi Jokinen, who played for Finland in 2006, said he isn't concerned.
“I'm lucky because I'm not some physical guy who might end up hurting someone on another team that I play with,” Jokinen said. “But it's the Olympics. It's playing for my country. You give it your all when you're playing for Finland.”
During Penguins training camp, Bylsma spoke with reporters about the Olympics and Team USA's David Backes, a center for the St. Louis Blues. It was suggested that Backes stifles Crosby's effectiveness when the NHL clubs meet.
Bylsma shook his head and grinned.
“It's a funny thing,” Granato said. “We love the guys here. We want Sid and Chris Kunitz to play well in the Olympics. We want Jussi and Olli to play well. But this is the ultimate competition, the ultimate tournament. This tournament is what sports are all about. So from the American standpoint, we're going to do everything we can to win.”
Players such as Martin and Orpik, on the wrong side of 30, might be playing in the Olympics for the final time. Maatta almost certainly isn't, but he said he understands what is at stake and that his mentors in Pittsburgh won't be of any help in Sochi.
“That's OK,” Maatta said. “During the Olympics, you forget about the friend stuff. You have to.”