ST. LOUIS — Some of the St. Louis Blues’ Olympians got an early taste of the ice hockey competition at the Winter Games when the U.S. and Canada women’s teams met Wednesday morning in a spirited Group A contest.
David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Jay Bouwmeester were among the capacity crowd at Shayba Arena watching the rivalry game, but for the first time since Bouwmeester became a Blue last April, they didn’t have each other’s back.
Backes and Oshie, of course, are on Team USA, while Bouwmeester suits up for Team Canada. So while Bouwmeester got bragging rights Wednesday when the Canadian women won 3-2, he might not get the last laugh. There’s a good chance they’ll all be on the ice wearing different jerseys in a men’s game before long.
With nine Blues Olympians in Sochi, Russia, there could be quite a bit of that going on over the next two weeks, starting Thursday. Backes, Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk will open their Olympic schedule when the United States plays Slovakia in a Group A game. And they will see a familiar face on the other side in goalie Jaroslav Halak.
"We’re playing with a lot of guys with (nine) of us going that are going to be on opposite teams when we get there," Backes said before leaving for Sochi. "That’s not an opportunity I had in the last Olympics, where Roman (Polak) was the only other guy on another team and we didn’t play the Czech Republic. But we start off against Slovakia, so we’ll get to see Jaro right away."
Ten Blues were selected to compete for six different countries: Backes, Oshie and Shattenkirk (United States), Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo (Canada), Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund (Sweden), Vladimir Tarasenko (Russia), Halak (Slovakia) and Vladimir Sobotka (Czech Republic).
Sobotka, however, will miss the Olympics after breaking his kneecap shortly before the Olympic break. The Czech Republic opens its schedule with a Group C game against Steen and Berglund’s Sweden squad on Wednesday.
While that Blues-versus-Blues matchup won’t happen, there will be others in Sochi.
Jaroslav Halak figures to face many of his Blues teammates in early Olympic competition.
That’s something these guys are used to from practice — and in Bouwmeester’s case, from when he was a Blues opponent — but the stakes will be significantly higher in Russia.
"At that stage they are not my teammates anymore," Halak said. "They are the opposition. I’m not going to try to focus whether it’s Osh or Backs or Shatty, I just try to focus on stopping the puck."
Group A includes the U.S., Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia. So after facing Halak on Thursday, Backes, Oshie and Shattenkirk will play against Tarasenko on Saturday. Tarasenko will take aim at Halak on Sunday.
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Canada is in Group B with Austria, Finland and Norway. Group C is made up of the Czech Republic, Latvia, Switzerland and Sweden.
That means some of the Blues won’t face off against each other until the playoff round.
That’s probably good news for Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and general manager Doug Armstrong, who are part of Team Canada, as well as Blues owner Tom Stillman, who is expected to be in Sochi watching his players as a fan.
Canada, which beat the U.S. 3-2 in the gold medal game in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympic Games, is the slight favorite to repeat and capture gold, with Russia and Sweden not far behind.
The Blues-versus-Blues matchups will make for an interesting game within the game in Sochi. It’s one thing for Backes, Oshie, Shattenkirk and Tarasenko to try to slip pucks past Halak, but quite another when the game gets more physical and those players are in each other’s sights.
That’s also one of the unusual aspects of the NHL in an Olympic year.
When Backes flattened Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings last month, it wasn’t just a big hit. It was a big hit between players who would be teammates just a few weeks later on Team USA.
"That’s a great part about our game," Backes said before that game. "You beat each other up on the ice and give everything you’ve got, and then afterwards you can have a mutual respect where you shake hands and talk about the battles and the trials and tribulations of the game and you’re able to do it right back again. Those things bring a lot of enjoyment, I think, to the game."
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.