One of the most difficult things Sami Salo recalls having to navigate at his first Olympics was the cafeteria in the athletes village.
"You have so many different athletes who are preparing for competitions, so there are a lot of people in the cafeteria at the same time trying to eat," the Lightning defenseman said.
Strange eating schedules, lock-down security, playing against one's NHL teammates, the joy of winning two Olympic medals — Salo, 39, in his fourth Olympics for Finland, has pretty much seen it all.
No surprise, then, that Salo's Tampa Bay teammates Radko Gudas, 23, and Ondrej Palat, 22, playing for the Czech Republic in their first Olympics, sought out Salo for a little inside information about the tournament that begins today in Sochi, Russia.
"Not that he was giving any advice," Gudas said. "He was just saying how it goes."
"He said it's unreal to be in the village with people who do different sports," Palat said. "He told us just to enjoy the time there. It's going to be awesome."
"I think Sami Salo played in the first Olympics," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
It was a joke, of course, playing off Salo's age and experience.
Salo's first Olympics was 2002 in Salt Lake City. He won silver in 2006 in Turin, Italy, when Finland lost to Sweden 3-2 in the gold-medal game, and bronze in 2010 in Vancouver.
"The excitement level doesn't change," Salo said, "but the expectations have changed."
Expectations are high in Finland, Salo said, especially after it won this year's world junior title. Still, Finland, which faces Austria in its opener Thursday, is an Olympic underdog, especially with the loss to injury of Lightning teammate Valtteri Filppula and the Wild's Mikko Koivu.
"I think that serves our team well being the underdogs," Salo said. "Our strength has always been great team chemistry. Everybody has grown to know over the years what to expect, what the team system is."
As for perhaps winning gold, Salo said it would be the biggest thrill of his career until he wins a Stanley Cup.
"All the players who have a chance to play in the NHL, it's the one everyone wants," he said of the Cup. "A gold would be a close second."
Salo, who has a goal and 10 points and is plus-9 in 49 games for the Lightning with an average 18:37 of ice time, would have to play two more Olympics to match the record six hockey tournaments played by his countrymen Raimo Helminen (1984-2002) and Teemu Selanne (1992-2014),
Not that four is anything to sneeze at, Cooper said.
"It's amazing to me, especially after being part of this league and seeing how demanding and hard it is it is," he said. "(Salo) still is an effective player in this league and in a national competition. I'm pretty excited for him."
Salo said he told Gudas and Palat that facing a teammate during an Olympic game should be "business as usual." And as far as the security concerns in Sochi, "At the Olympics I've been part of, the athletes areas and arenas have been so secure, there's no real worry for the athletes."
But his best advice was simple.
"Just enjoy the moment," Salo said. "It's a great atmosphere to be around the other athletes. Just enjoy your time there because it's a very unique situation."
He should know.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]