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For the Tampa Bay Lightning's four participants, the Olympic tournament is the ultimate stage for national pride

Russia’s Evgeni Nabokov of the Sharks gives a playful push to Alexander Ovechkin of the Capitals during practice Monday in Vancouver. With 25 percent of NHL players born outside North America, much of the tension in international competition has been eliminated through familiarity.

Associated Press

Russia’s Evgeni Nabokov of the Sharks gives a playful push to Alexander Ovechkin of the Capitals during practice Monday in Vancouver. With 25 percent of NHL players born outside North America, much of the tension in international competition has been eliminated through familiarity.

Antero Niittymaki does not want to spark an international incident, but if Finland makes a run during the Olympic hockey tournament, he will let his Lightning teammates know about it.

Gently, the goaltender said. There are 21 games left in the regular-season playoff chase, so everyone needs to pull together.

But if Finland, for which Niittymaki will play, beats the United States and Tampa Bay left wing Ryan Malone, or Slovakia and defenseman Andrej Meszaros, or, holy cow, Sweden and defenseman Mattias Ohlund, something will have to be said.

"It's a hockey game when you're out there," Niittymaki said. "I wouldn't say we're not friends, but you know who you play for."

With 25 percent of NHL players born outside North America, much of the tension in international competition that used to be sparked by political and social differences has been eliminated through familiarity, players said.

But that doesn't mean rivalries — and heated ones — don't exist, and the Olympic tournament, which begins today, is the ultimate stage for national pride.

Niittymaki said that whenever Finland plays Sweden, the countries are glued to the television.

"It's your neighbor," he said. "You want to beat them as much as they want to beat you."

The United States and Canada is another border skirmish.

Slovakia against the Czech Republic is between two countries that used to be one as Czechoslovakia.

"It's not like I hate them or anything," Meszaros said. "But every sport we play them, soccer or hockey, it's a big rivalry; always has been, always will be."

Still, Meszaros said, a victory over the Czechs would be handled with respect.

"I have a lot of Czech friends. I love them," he said. "Maybe you can meet after the game and be like, 'Oh, well.' But you don't want to do it at a tournament like this. When you look back at the game, you can laugh it off, but for that night, it's tough. I know how I would feel if they did it to me."

Compare that kinder, gentler sensibility to the days when the United States and Canada faced what then was the big, bad Soviet Union, when every sporting event seemed a tussle between capitalism and communism.

"There were a lot of political things," said Lightning coach Rick Tocchet, who in 1987 with Canada won the memorable Canada Cup final over the Soviets. "It was mean hockey. You didn't know those guys. You didn't want to know those guys. Now, guys are playing against their teammates. That doesn't mean they're not going to work hard. They're going to play their (rear ends) off. But it's a little different."

Indeed, when Canada and Russia face off in what some anticipate will be the gold-medal game, the contest will be more about hockey supremacy than ideological superiority.

Any time the United States plays Russia, the Americans' win over the Soviets in 1980 at Lake Placid is recalled, not because of the political implications but because many consider it the greatest upset in sports history.

"The David vs. Goliath thing is what you remember most," Malone said, and added, "I don't think it matters who we're playing. Rivalries will be there because of what we're playing for. Guys are going to be running each other through the glass, I know that. You go against your buddies. You know what's at stake. You lay it all on the line."

"You play for the jersey you are wearing," said Ohlund, in his fourth Olympics and a gold-medal winner in 2006 at Turin, where the Swedes beat the Finns in the final. "We play Finland, I could care less if Niitty is in net; I want to score. Whether it's a teammate or old friend on the other side, it doesn't make a difference."

Except for who gets to yap in the locker room.

Fast facts

Men's Olympic hockey

The TV schedule of games (all games are shown live; the time listed is the game's starting time):

Today: U.S. vs. Switzerland, 3 p.m., USA; Canada vs. Norway, 7:30 p.m., Russia vs. Latvia, midnight, CNBC

Wednesday: Finland vs. Belarus, 3 p.m., MSNBC; Sweden vs. Germany, 7:30 p.m., Czech Republic vs. Slovakia, midnight, CNBC

Thursday: U.S. vs. Norway, 3 p.m., USA; Canada vs. Switzerland, 7:30 p.m., Slovakia vs. Russia, midnight, CNBC

Friday: Belarus vs. Sweden, 3 p.m., Finland vs. Germany, midnight, MSNBC; Czech Republic vs. Latvia, 7:30 p.m., CNBC

Saturday: Switzerland vs. Norway, 3 p.m., Slovakia vs. Latvia, 7:30 p.m., Belarus vs. Germany, midnight, MSNBC

Sunday: Russia vs. Czech Republic, 3 p.m., Ch. 8; U.S. vs. Canada, 7:40 p.m., Finland vs. Sweden, midnight, MSNBC

Feb. 23: Elimination-round games, 3 p.m., USA; 7 and 10 p.m., CNBC; 12:35 a.m., Ch. 8

Feb. 24: Quarterfinals, 3 p.m., Ch. 8; 7:30 and 10 p.m., midnight, CNBC

Feb. 26: Semifinals, 3 p.m., Ch. 8; 9:30 p.m., CNBC

Feb. 27: Bronze-medal game, 10 p.m., MSNBC

Feb. 28: Gold-medal game, 3:15 p.m., Ch. 8

For the Tampa Bay Lightning's four participants, the Olympic tournament is the ultimate stage for national pride 02/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 15, 2010 10:37pm]
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