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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Injured Olympians choose different paths home or to Sochi amid risk

Posted: 02/11/2014 1:27 PM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 02/11/2014 3:09 PM


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SOCHI, Russia - Steven Stamkos isn't walking through that door for Team Canada.

Neither are Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen for Sweden, Valtteri Filppula and Mikko Koivu for Finland, Marian Gaborik and Lubomir Visnovsky for Slovakia or Vladimir Sobotka for the Czech Republic. Injuries are going to happen during an NHL season, and the Olympic hockey tournament was bound to be affected.

Then there's Russia's Pavel Datsyuk who was skating and smiling Tuesday while insisting he's healthy after missing more than a month with injury.

"What injury?" Datsyuk said with a wry smile.

While Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland explained there was nothing he could do to prevent Datsyuk from going, the New York Islanders reportedly did just that with Visnovsky, who even played five games after a lengthy absence because of a concussion.

Vancouver Canucks coach John Tortorella made it clear he didn't want Sedin to go to Sochi, and soon after that his captain withdrew.

There's clearly no instruction manual for injured Olympians, their teams and national federations for these situations. What they require is a precarious balancing act of how much playing in this tournament means versus risking the rest of the NHL season.

"It's a fine line between winning and losing," Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman said. "You hope your best players are there, but the timing of the Olympics, the fact it's in the middle of all our seasons, you have to deal with the injury part."

Holland says he was powerless to stop Datsyuk from coming to represent Russia despite dealing with a lower-body injury for more than a month. That's part of the agreement to send NHL players to the Olympics, Holland said, but it's also a matter of understanding the scope of this event, especially for the captain of the home team.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Holland said. "In his hockey lifetime the Olympics will never be in Russia (again), he's the captain. He's probably been preparing for this two-week tournament five, six years ago when it was announced that it was coming to Russia."

Datsyuk actually said he's been preparing for this moment all his life, while also declaring he would be in the lineup for Russia's opener against Slovenia on Thursday.

But the Red Wings organization has been through this before, back in 2002 when Yzerman played through a knee injury in Salt Lake City, helped Canada win a gold medal then didn't return to Detroit's lineup until the playoffs. Yzerman gutted through it and also helped the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup, though it came at the cost of major off-season surgery that caused him to miss the first four-plus months of the next season.

Still, Yzerman knows full well why players like Datsyuk and Stamkos want so badly to play in the Olympics despite injuries.

"International hockey is very exciting for every player to be a part of," Yzerman said. "Most of this group of players now at this age, they've watched as kids, watched the NHL players in the Olympics. ... If there's any chance that they can play, they're going to try to take that opportunity, and I understand why."

Yzerman had the benefit in the case of Stamkos that he serves as the Tampa Bay Lightning's general manager and didn't have to weigh the ethical question of possibly damaging another colleague's valuable asset. A few days before it was decision time, Stamkos didn't get cleared by Lightning doctors, which made the decision for him.

"I honestly believe that we did everything possible in order to have my injured leg ready in time for the Olympics, but I realize you can't force healing," said Stamkos, who hadn't played since Nov. 11. "I know, in the best interest of my long-term health, I cannot represent Canada in Sochi, as much as I would like to."

Sedin would have liked to represent Sweden, too, something Tortorella acknowledged even as he publicly stated that the Canucks star shouldn't go to the Olympics. He said it was a "delicate situation" but that he absolutely did not want Sedin taking the chance.

"I'm thinking about our hockey club," Tortorella said. "But I am not having a conversation with him about that. That's his call. That's your country. So he's going to have to work that out with his family and let us know what he wants to do."

A rib injury has been hampering Sedin, who figured it wasn't worth making things worse by trying to play in Sochi.

"To go over there and not feel 100 per cent was wrong towards myself and my teammates here and my Swedish teammates,'' Sedin said. "It wasn't a risk I was willing to take.''

It sounded like Visnovsky was willing to take that risk when he played five games after missing three months with a concussion. But GM Garth Snow told Newsday that the Islanders "just don't feel comfortable letting him go."

Slovak GM Otto Sykora didn't understand why that was happening if Visnovsky was healthy, because officially NHL teams cannot stand in the way of players going once they're medically cleared. But in a release announcing Visnovsky was out, Sykora said it was the veteran defenceman who ultimately felt he wasn't healthy enough to represent Slovakia.

Similar decisions, though without the reported pressure from teams, also happened for Slovakia's Gaborik, Sweden's Franzen, Finland's Koivu and Filppula and the Czech Republic's Sobotka.

Datsyuk didn't appear to ever consider that an option. He played limited minutes in two games for the Red Wings before the Olympic break, though coach Mike Babcock didn't consider him 100 per cent.

Sitting at a press conference alongside his Russian teammates, Datsyuk said through an interpreter what was obvious in the language of hockey — that no words or injury were going to interrupt this experience for him.

"My injury does not bother me at all," Datsyuk said. "Babcock is not my concern right now."

With files from Kelsey Patterson in Montreal.

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