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OLYMPIC DREAMS

Jets players focused on booking a ticket to the NHL playoffs; also have hopes of making a trip to sport's ultimate stage

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This is the politically correct answer, the one Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane, Ondrej Pavelec and any other Winnipeg Jet who dreams of the Olympics is supposed to spit out:

"Bigger things to worry about right now... Big game against the Leafs coming up... gotta live in the moment... "

But this is the reality: if just about every kid imagines scoring the winner in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final, then the sequel invariably includes an Olympic-themed moment like belting out the national anthem after a win or sporting a medal at the end of the event.

And the 2014 Winter Olympics -- scheduled for Feb. 7-23 in Sochi, Russia -- are inching closer by the day.

"Absolutely, it's there in my mind," said Wheeler, a native of Robbinsdale, Minn.

"That's a big deal. The last Olympics were a huge step forward for USA Hockey and to even be considered would be a huge honour. But the best thing you can do in these situations, I think, is worry about your own team in the present day, do your thing and play the best you can.

"Ultimately, those decisions are out of your hands."

Well... yes and no. There's no question hockey officials from all the hockey powers who will participate in Sochi have already drawn up tentative rosters and countries like Canada and the United States will likely have training camps this summer. And so while those decisions are made by hockey execs, the players can dictate whether they get invitations by lighting it up right now.

"I'd like to think I'm on the radar," said Kane, a member of Team Canada at the last two world championships. "I'm not thinking about it much right now, but it's definitely something I'm aware of. It's another goal I'd like to accomplish. That's the biggest international stage there is. I'll work my hardest to continue to improve and hopefully make that team when the time comes."

Teeming

Now, the Jets' current roster might not be teeming with candidates for Sochi, but it does have a few who could/should be in the discussion for their respective countries.

Toby Enstrom, who played for Sweden in Vancouver in 2010, leads all NHL defencemen in scoring. Ondrej Pavelec backed up Tomas Vokoun for the Czech Republic in Vancouver, although he didn't see one second of action.

Olli Jokinen, a veteran of three Olympics, could be a leader for Finland again while vets like Alex Ponikarovsky (Ukraine) and Nik Antropov (Kazahkstan) might be again called upon if their countries manage to qualify.

Kane, even with his international experience -- both he and Andrew Ladd wore Canada's colours at the Worlds last spring -- will be in tough to crack the Sochi roster, given the skill up front that includes Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos, Claude Giroux, Rick Nash, Eric Staal, Jordan Eberle, Patrice Bergeron and a number of others.

Wheeler, who has four goals and nine points in nine games this year and is coming off a career campaign in which he led the Jets in scoring, should be on the radar for the Americans. Team USA iced a younger squad in Vancouver, but also had older vets like Jamie Langenbrunner, Chris Drury and Ryan Malone up front.

Both Dustin Byfuglien and Zach Bogosian, should he play well when returns, would also likely be considered by the Americans and Jim Slater played his checking-role assignment effectively for the U.S. at the worlds in 2012.

And once an athlete gets a taste of international play, invariably he wants more. Much more.

"It's a special time for every athlete," said Pavelec. "I was lucky to be in Vancouver. I've played in the world championships and Olympics... the nice thing about the Olympics is it's not just about hockey, it's about all the other sports.

"Just to be in the Olympic village with the all the other athletes was a great experience. Those two weeks I spent there were amazing. Any time you can pull on your country's jersey, it's something special.

"But I know it's a year from now and it's not official that NHL players are going. So, all I can do is focus on playing for the Jets and tonight."

And then Pavelec grinned, perhaps knowing his last sentence sounded cliché.

"Of course I want to do it again," he said. "Every athlete wants to play in the Olympic Games."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

JETS BY NATIONALITY

Canada

LW Evander Kane

LW Andrew Ladd

RW/C Bryan Little

RW/C Kyle Wellwood

D Paul Postma

D Grant Clitsome

LW James Wright

RW Chris Thorburn

RW Anthony Peluso

United States

D Dustin Byfuglien

RW Blake Wheeler

D Zach Bogosian

C Jim Slater

D Mark Stuart

D Ron Hainsey

D Zach Redmond

G Al Montoya

Finland

C Olli Jokinen

RW Antti Miettinen

Sweden

D Toby Enstrom

Czech Republic

G Ondrej Pavelec

Russia

C Alex Burmistrov

Ukraine

Alex Ponikarovsky

Kazakhstan

C Nik Antropov

JET OLYMPIANS

Current Jets who have represented their countries in the past:

-- Olli Jokinen, Finland -- Salt Lake City 2002, Turin 2006, Vancouver 2010

-- Antti Miettinen, Finland -- Vancouver 2010

-- Toby Enstrom, Sweden -- Vancouver 2010

-- Nik Antropov, Kazakhstan -- Turin 2006

-- Alex Ponikarovsky, Ukraine -- Salt Lake 2002

-- Ondrej Pavelec, Czech Republic -- Vancouver 2010

SOCHI 2014

How qualification works:

Teams ranked 1-9 in the 2012 IIHF World Rankings are in, plus three qualifiers.

The seeding

Group A: Russia (1), Slovakia (6), USA (7), Qualifier 3

Group B: Finland (2), Canada (5), Norway (8), Qualifier 2

Group C: Czech Republic (3), Sweden (4), Switzerland (9), Qualifier 1

The Olympic qualifications (Three separate tournaments running Feb. 7-10)

Group D: Germany (10), Austria (15), Italy (16), Netherlands (24)

Group E: Latvia (11), France (14), Kazakhstan (17), Great Britain (21)

Group F: Denmark (12), Belarus (13), Slovenia (18), Ukraine (20)

(Note: Netherlands, Ukraine and Great Britain won pre-qualification tournaments last November to advance to this round.)

The Oly format:

Same as Vancouver 2010 -- the four teams with the best records (group winners and second-place teams) advance to the quarter-finals; the remaining eight teams will play a qualification game.

-- Tait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2013 D4

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