TAMPA — The easiest thing for Victor Hedman last month would have been to duck the question about Russia's antigay laws and how they will be enforced at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
But the Lightning defenseman, a candidate to play for Sweden, spoke forcefully, calling Russia's laws against "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" — laws Russian officials claim won't apply to Olympic athletes and spectators — "completely wrong."
"We're all humans," Hedman told reporters during Sweden's Olympic tryout camp. "No one should have a say in what way you are sexually oriented."
Hedman reiterated the point this week at the Tampa Bay Times Forum and said the response to his original comments was "positive."
"It's been a big topic with everyone," he said. "We just stood up for everyone's rights."
Hedman, 22, was not the only Swedish athlete to speak up.
Red Wings left wing Henrik Zetterberg was another, and Emma Green Tregaro, a high jumper at the world track championships in Moscow, painted her fingernails rainbow colors. She switched to red nails after Swedish officials told her to "respect the rules."
Hedman said there has been no talk about Sweden boycotting the Olympics and that his chance to make the team, which could hinge on how he plays in the first half of the season, will be "a huge motivation."
Even so, Hedman said, his ambitions come second to what is best for the Lightning.
"There's a long time left," he said of the Feb. 7-23 Olympics. "I want to focus on Tampa, climb back to the playoffs. I want to be a force every night."
That has been expected of Hedman since he was drafted No. 2 overall in 2009. In his fifth season, it might be time for him to take that step.
Not that Hedman has been bad. He was plus-1 during last season's lockout-shortened 44-game schedule. His average ice time of 22:39 was second on the team, and his 84 blocked shots were third.
"He's had some great stretches," general manager Steve Yzerman said.
And teammate Sami Salo said Hedman "has the potential to be one of the best D-men in the league. A huge boy, skates like the wind. He has all the tools."
It's just that with his size — 6 feet 6, 230 pounds — reach and skills, even Hedman is impatient for them to consistently coalesce. His team-worst 42 giveaways last season were a sore point.
"It's been a big, long learning curve for me, maybe a little longer than I hoped for," Hedman said. "I know what to expect from myself and the way I can play.
"It's my fifth year. It's time for me to go out there and take charge."
Tampa Bay's defense could use such an anchor. The key for Hedman, Yzerman said, is keeping his priorities straight.
"I see him as a guy who has the potential to be an elite defensive defenseman," Yzerman said. "I don't expect him to get 80 points or anything like that. Let's make sure you're rock-solid defensively. He skates so well, we see him as a puck-moving guy who plays on the power play. He's not going to lead your offense. He's going to support it."
As for supporting homosexual athletes at the Olympics, Hedman said he is just happy so many others also spoke up.
"I think it's wrong," he said of Russia's antigay laws. "It's a tough question for everyone to answer, but I made my statement, and that's where I stand."
CAMP ENDS: The Lightning's two-day prospects camp wrapped up Thursday ahead of this weekend's prospects tournament at the Saveology.com Iceplex in Coral Springs. Tampa Bay faces the Bruins at 2 p.m. today, the Predators at noon Saturday and the host Panthers at 4 p.m. Sunday. The games are free, but you must apply for tickets at floridapanthers.com/trainingcamp.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]