While the bulk of the Dallas Stars will be enjoying the 10 days off for the NHL Olympic break before returning to practice on Feb. 19, four members of the organization won’t get much of a break at all, but it’s for good reason.
That’s because on Sunday, a four-man Stars contingent headed to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics. That traveling party included three players-captain Jamie Benn (Canada), No.1 goaltender Kari Lehtonen (Finland) and rookie sensation Valeri Nichushkin (Russia) along with Stars head coach Lindy Ruff, who is an assistant for Team Canada.
This will be the first Olympic experience for the three Stars players, but this is Ruff’s second Games as he was also an assistant for the 2010 Canadian team that won the Gold Medal in Vancouver with a clinching win over the United States.
And the veteran head coach likes Canada’s chances to bring home the gold yet again.
"Well, I think we’ll be strong, but at the same time you’ve got to play well," Ruff said. "You get into a one-game elimination tournament really the team that gets it together and plays well early on is the team that usually can push through. I think in the last Olympics, we had a little bit of problems early on, but we came together as a team at the right time."
Benn will again be coached by Ruff on Team Canada and even though the full magnitude of being an Olympian was something the Stars captain admitted probably wouldn’t hit him until he landed in Sochi, the immense accomplishment of being part of his country’s Olympic team in Canada’s national sport is something that’s definitely not lost on the British Columbia native.
"It means a lot. For a Canadian to represent your country in hockey it’s pretty special and it definitely means a lot to me," Benn said. "I definitely want to represent Canada well and hopefully we can win the gold."
Nichushkin will also be appearing in his first Olympics at the ripe, old age of 18, an impressive achievement for any player in any sport.
"As my kids would say, that’s way cool. Just think about it, 18 and you get a chance to compete on the world stage for your country, in your country and just to be chosen because there are a lot of good Russian players," Ruff said. "There’s a lot of good Russian players in the KHL, even our former NHL players that are still playing there and to be chosen over some of the players that have been here and maintained a pretty high level of play, it speaks volumes about where this young man is at and where he can get to."
Lehtonen, who along with Boston’s Tuukka Rask and San Jose’s Antti Niemi, is one of three goaltenders on the Finnish roster, is equally excited about appearing in his first Games for his country, a trip his wife will join him on.
"Like I said before, it’s going to be a proud moment to be part of this team. It’s been a dream well from since I was a little kid," Lehtonen said. "Watched the Olympics and was thinking it’d be pretty nice to be there one day. Now I’m excited to be part of it."
Benn remembers hearing the man who preceded him as Dallas’ captain, Brenden Morrow, who now plays in St. Louis, talk about his experiences with Team Canada in the 2010 Vancouver Games and that sensation of winning a gold medal and being the source of such great national pride is something he wants to be part of.
"I did (watch the 2010 Games)," Benn said. "Obviously, because Brenden (Morrow) was a part of it and being a part of the Dallas Stars as well, I tuned in to every game and obviously it was very exciting and dramatic, the way it finished with Sid (Crosby’s) goal. Hopefully I can be a part of that again this year and bring home the gold again."
With both Niemi and Rask being regarded as two of the top goaltenders in the NHL and the world, Lehtonen knows he has some stiff competition for minutes in the crease for Team Finland, but it’s a challenge the affable Finn is embracing.
"Tuukka (Rask) has been tremendous last two seasons, really has played well. So has Antti (Niemi). It’s going to be exciting," Lehtonen said. "I don’t know where or what will be my spot when I go there. I’m just going to be happy to be part of it and if I get to play, even better. That’s my mindset."
But one thing none of the four Stars traveling to Sochi were too concerned about were the concerns about food, water and security that had dominated the media prior to the opening ceremonies last week.
"You hear the concerns. I think everybody’s well aware of them. If I miss a couple meals, it won’t hurt me," Ruff joked. "I do need water. Everybody needs water, so I think you can focus on those one or two negatives, but I’m going to focus on the positive of getting over there and participating in something that’s going to be one heck of an experience."
Canada, Finland and Russia each open round robin play on Thursday. Canada will face Norway at 11 AM Dallas time while Finland plays Austria at 2 AM Central Time and Russia hosts Slovakia in a game that starts at 6:30 AM.
But the highlight of the round robin part of the Games could come on Sunday when Finland and Canada square off, a game that could feature Stars teammates in Benn and Lehtonen squaring off on opposite sides of the ice.
"I’m definitely looking forward to that to see if he’ll be in the pipes or not," Benn said. "Hopefully he is and hopefully we come out on the right end of the score there."
While the Olympics are a completely foreign experience to his three players making the trek to Sochi, Ruff has been here before. And even though this is his second Games on the bench for Canada, he admits that the excitement of being part of something that happens only every four years is something that never wanes.
"It’s exciting. It’s pressure-packed. There’s moments in every game that define the game and define the tournament. It’s really different, going on the ice and playing against some of the guys who are your players or players playing against their teammates and knowing that this battle or this situation on the ice can dictate where that team is going to go," Ruff said.