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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NHL stars break off into new tribes

Country comes first as players go for gold in Sochi

Posted: 02/11/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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SOCHI, Russia -- Michael Frolik treated Olli Jokinen like a teammate as far as New York before giving him the Olympic cold shoulder.

Frolik, along with Czech Republic teammate goalie Ondrej Pavelec, flew from St. Louis to New York on Saturday following their Winnipeg Jets game against the Blues and chatted with the Finnish veteran Jokinen. But on the charter from New York to Sochi, it was all Olympic business and no NHL buddy system.

"I sat with Ondrej. We didn't talk to Olli," laughed Frolik, who skated on a line with Milan Michalek and former NHLer Jiri Novotny now of the KHL. "Well, to be honest, Olli had his wife with him on the plane, so we didn't want to bug him. But he plays for Finland now. He's not our pal for the next couple of weeks."

Winger Blake Wheeler is the other member of the Jets here and is playing for team U.S.A.

Team Canada features Winnipeg native, and Chicago Blackhawks captain, Jonathan Toews, who had a confident and enthusiastic manner after practice.

"It was good to get out and skate together. There's been a lot of talk and a lot of storylines from the team finally being made," said Toews. "The season's gone by pretty fast but it's seemed like a long time getting here. We're excited to be together as a team and today was a great start. We have to get off on the right foot."

Toews skated on a line with Hawks teammate Patrick Sharp and Rick Nash of the New York Rangers, but warned not to put too much stock into the trios used in Canada's first skate.

"There are so many great combinations that you could find with this group. It just depends on what the coaches expect from each player," said Toews. "We've made it clear that guys will have to play different roles from what they do with their club. But we have versatile guys with skill that can also play defensively."

Canada begins the tournament Thursday against Norway and Toews said his team needs to play with urgency from the first faceoff if they expect to achieve their goal.

"We know the expectation is (to win gold), but we have to understand there will be tough challenges along the way and we need to take things one shift at a time," said Toews. "Regardless of who we play, we have to play like we're playing the U.S. or Russia every single game. That's the level we have to get to, and the sooner we get to it, the better chance we have of doing what we all want to do here."

Jokinen said flying with club teammates and members of his national team wasn't awkward.

"Once we get in the airport, you start seeing groups of Finnish guys gathering together, Canadian guys would be in the one group," said Jokinen, who is playing here with a line including Tuomo Ruutu and Lauri Korpikoski. "Everybody knew ahead of time that obviously there was going to be guys from other countries as well, you know? It's not a big deal. I think most of everybody was probably sleeping anyway."

Jokinen, who has silver and bronze medals and is playing in his fourth Olympics, had previously said he was done playing for Finland following the 2010 Games in Vancouver, but Monday said he was honoured to have gotten the call again.

"You know what, four years ago, I was never even thinking that I would play hockey this long. At that time, I thought it would be maybe one year or two years that I've been playing," he said. "But I've been able to stay healthy and I've kind of found a new passion of playing. Playing in Calgary under Brent Sutter, he kind of gave me a new life over there. I had a pretty tough go there in New York. Hockey wasn't that much fun. Then I went back to Calgary and really enjoyed the hockey again.

"Obviously, it's an honour to play for Team Finland. This is a tough team to make. We've got a lot of good players playing in North America and a lot of good players playing overseas here. I'm happy and honoured that I was able to make this team. I can't wait to start playing."

So is this the last go round?

"I guess this time it's better to zip it up and not say anything. Because you never know," said Jokinen.

Wheeler and Derek Stepan wore yellow jerseys during the U.S. practice and were not grouped on a line. U.S.A. GM David Poile liked Wheeler for this team based on his skill set being suited for the international game and surface.

"The big ice is a benefit for me. Playing with speed is a big factor in my game and when you add a couple of feet on each side it gives you a little more room to operate and any time you give a guy with a little more speed a little more space it makes it even more dangerous," said Wheeler. "I enjoy getting a little more room out there."

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2014 C1

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