Pittsburgh Sports Report
February 2010

Country First
Olympics provide unique rooting interest
By Alex Nseir

Own the podium. That is Canada's goal and rallying cry for the upcoming Winter Olympics that will be held in Vancouver Feb. 12-28. Own the Podium is also the name of an organization that wants to develop sports in Canada so that the home country will be the top medal-winning nation by the closing ceremonies this year.

The Penguins have five players that will be Olympians in 2010. Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar will represent Russia, Marc-Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby will suit up for Canada (Crosby as an alternate captain), and Brooks Orpik will dress for Team U.S.A.

The bulk of the team won't be in the Olympic tournament, of course, but that doesn't mean they won't be watching as fans - and as fans, every Penguins player asked about it agreed that their motto is always country first.

"I'd love to see guys from Pittsburgh have great tournaments, but I want the U.S. to win," Penguins forward and former Olympian Bill Guerin said. "I think (Team U.S.A.) is really good. I think they are as good as anybody."

Guerin, who won a silver medal in Salt Lake City in 2002, also noted that even players who are teammates in the NHL have different allegiances once they suit up for their countries. In other words, if Brooks Orpik has a chance to hit Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, he won't hesitate.

"Oh yeah, it's for real," Guerin said. "Absolutely you play hard. I don't think there will be anything dirty between teammates or anything like that, but it's just in our competitive nature (to play tough even against our own teammates)."

Ontario born Matt Cooke agreed with this sentiment.

"As a whole you want Canada to do well," he said. "From the hockey perspective, we'd like to see Canada win, but you also want your teammates to do well."

Cooke's native Canada is under enormous pressure in this year's Olympics as the men's team missed the podium entirely in 2006 in Torino. Cooke believes that despite the pressure of playing in front of a home crowd that will not accept anything but gold, home ice will still be an advantage for Hockey Canada.

"To have fans in Vancouver to support Hockey in Canada especially I think it's an advantage," he said. "I don't think there's that much more pressure."

Cooke might be right that being at home will be an advantage for Crosby, Fleury and the rest of Team Canada, but he may be the only one downplaying the intensity of Canadian fans.

The Czech Republic, Martin Skoula's home, defeated Sergei Gonchar, Evgeni Malkin and Team Russia to win the Bronze Medal in Italy four years ago. Former Penguins captain Jaromir Jagr will even be back playing for the Czech team this year.

"They have a pretty good team," Skoula said.

And while much of the pre-Olympic buzz is about a Gold Medal game between Canada and Russia, Skoula pointed out that having an amazing roster might not always lead to success in an abbreviated tournament like the Olympics.

"It's a little bit of a different (scenario in the Olympic tournament) because you have seven games or something, so if you have a good couple of games you can succeed," he said. "It's not like the playoffs where you have to be good for two months. It basically depends on two or three games."

Ukranian forward Ruslan Fedotenko, who played for his country in 2002, will miss the games this year since Ukraine didn't qualify for the tournament.

"If they had (qualified), I would be playing there, but they didn't have a lot of NHL players."

Since he will be unable to root for his country, Fedotenko echoed Skoula's sentiments that he'll have to watch the tournament before making predictions or taking sides.

"I'm kind of up in the air yet," he said. "I like to see the games and how they play. Maybe I'll have a certain way I'll be pulling for somebody, but at this point I'm kind of neutral."

Skoula noted again that, just like Sweden and Finland were not expected to win the top medals in Torino, anything could happen this time in Vancouver.

"Canada and Russia are obviously two pretty good choices," he said. "But I guess always there is a surprise. It seems to never work out the way it is predicted."

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