Vancouver Games turn NHL teammates into opponents

By Larry Lage
Associated Press

Vancouver, British Columbia — Swedish defenseman Niklas Kronwall is friends with his Detroit Red Wings teammates Pavel Datsyuk and Valtteri Filppula — in Detroit, and off the ice. But forget about team ties when friends become foes on the Olympic ice.

One of the fiercest hitters in the NHL, Kronwall might have a shot to lay out a Red Wings teammate such as Russia’s Datsyuk, Finland’s Filppula or American Brian Rafalski. And he won’t give it a second thought.

“You don’t even have it in your mind that you’re going to smoke somebody, or try to hurt somebody,” Kronwall insisted. “But you play as close to the line as you can with as much toughness as possible.”

Datsyuk would expect nothing less.

“You don’t have friends on the ice,” the dazzling center said, sounding like Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV” when asked about teammates turning into opponents at the Olympics. “Off ice, we’re friends.”

The San Jose Sharks have eight players on provisional rosters and they’re spread out over five teams at the Olympics: Canada, United States, Sweden, Russia and Germany.

“The stakes are high, so we’re not going to pull any punches,” said forward Joe Thornton, one of four Sharks slated to suit up for the host Canadians. “I think it’s going to be exciting and we’re going to have a lot of fun with it.”

For instance, Thornon is considering side bets such as forcing teammate Evgeni Nabokov, a Russian goaltender, to wear maple leaf-filled gear if he loses.

“Or, maybe something worse than that,” Thornton said with a grin.

American Ryan Suter is looking forward to facing as many as four of his Nashville teammates representing four countries: “It’ll be a game within a game and a competition within the big picture.”

Filppula, whose first opportunity to play in the Olympics might get derailed by a groin injury, said Kronwall shouldn’t think twice about hitting him in open ice or a corner.

“I think guys will play the way they normally play because the game is too fast to think, ‘Hey, that’s my NHL teammate,” Filppula said. “I’m sure Kronner will try to light me up if he can.

“That’s the way it should be.”

This might be the last year for such rivalries, though. The NHL has not decided if its players will be allowed to compete at the 2014 Olympics in Russia.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly said that league’s participation will require extensive discussions between it and the NHL Players’ Association because he says shutting down the league for two weeks creates a problem — especially when the Olympics are staged outside of North America.

Kronwall, who will try to help Sweden repeat as Olympic champions, hopes things won’t change.

“It’s kind of the beauty of it,” he said. “Maybe on the ice, you’re swearing at each other and the next week, you’re going out to dinner and it’s all back to normal.”

After pulling for Swedish and Red Wings star Nicklas Lidstrom in Vancouver, defenseman Douglas Murray will be rooting against the 39-year-old defenseman as a member of the Sharks.

“I want nothing less than gold for Nick because this will probably be his last big tournament,” Murray said. “But then, I don’t want him to win the Cup!”

Received 02/15/10 03:24 am ET