Arriving fashionably late
Arriving fashionably late
What impact will replacement players have?
With the men’s tournament kicking off in Sochi on February 12, the door is wide-open for the latecomers this year, as ailments are piling up.
For Canada, Steven Stamkos’s broken right leg means Martin St. Louis, his Tampa Bay Lightning teammate and last year’s NHL scoring champion, will get a second chance to win an Olympic gold medal after finishing a disappointing seventh in his lone previous Winter Games, Turin 2006.
Sergei Soin and Denis Kokarev are out for Russia, and Alexander Syomin and Alexander Svitov are in. Will one of them challenge Alexander Ovechkin for the title of “Alexander the Great” on home ice?
Martin Erat takes Vladimir Sobotka’s place with the Czech Republic, and if the 32-year-old right wing helps his team attain the goal of a medal, that’ll be the second goal he's achieved this season. (In other words, he finally scored his first goal of the NHL season for the Washington Capitals in a 3-0 win over New Jersey on Saturday.)
Another Capital, Marcus Johansson, has huge skates to fill after Swedish coach Par Marts picked him to replace Vancouver captain and 2006 gold medalist Henrik Sedin. Can Gustav Nyquist’s puck savvy make up for the loss of Detroit teammate Johan Franzen’s experience and big-game moxie?
For Slovakia, major changes are also afoot, as Branko Radivojevic replaces superstar Marian Gaborik, and power play quarterback Lubomir Visnovsky has acquiesced to the New York Islanders’ demand that he not come to Sochi.
The Finns turn to the KHL for help, with Torpedo Nizhni Novgorod forwards Jarkko Immonen and Sakari Salminen supplanting key NHL centres Mikko Koivu and Valtteri Filppula, both cursed with broken ankles at this late stage.
"Well of course it’s a big loss, but still, we have a lot of good players,” said Finnish defenceman Lasse Kukkonen. “It’s a chance for new guys to step up, and that’s part of hockey.”
Will those arriving fashionably late to the Olympic party be difference-makers or non-factors?
If recent history tells us anything, it’s that replacements usually fare pretty well. Sure, there’s pressure on them, but they don’t have as much to lose as guys who were surefire participants from Day One.
In 2006, Niklas Kronwall was thrown into the Olympic mix almost as late as possible. Then an NHL rookie with Detroit, he only cracked coach Bengt-Ake Gustavsson’s Turin roster when veteran Mattias Ohlund got hurt in the quarter-finals against Switzerland.
Kronwall took full advantage, scoring a goal in Sweden’s 3-2 gold medal victory over the Finns. The hard-rock hitter had been in Detroit a week earlier, and had only been asked to come to the Games in case Tre Kronor needed a blueline replacement.
“I wish I would’ve played in other circumstances. I feel bad for him,” said Kronwall, who offered to give Ohlund his gold medal.
Another Red Wing, Tomas Holmstrom, got his ticket to Turin punched when Vancouver Canucks captain Markus Naslund decided to skip the Games to rest his sore groin.
Holmstrom, known for his gritty net-front presence, couldn’t have been much more different from Naslund, a finesse winger with a laser wrist shot from the faceoff circle. But it worked out nicely for “Homer.” He tallied the final goal in a 7-3 semi-final victory over the Czech Republic and added three assists at the Olympics. That May in Latvia, along with Kronwall, he also played on the national team that made Sweden the first country ever to win both Olympic and World Championship gold in the same year.
The Finns, who were the best team in Turin on balance, claimed silver with a roster where winger Niklas Hagman replaced another diligent grinder, Antti Miettinen. Coach Erkka Westerlund couldn’t have asked for much more than he got out of the then-Dallas Stars veteran, as Hagman potted four goals and two assists in six games.
Even more remarkably, the world thought Finland had taken a step backwards in goal before Turin, as injuries excluded top goalies Miikka Kiprusoff (hip) and Kari Lehtonen (groin). That, however, opened the door for an unheralded Philadelphia Flyers rookie, Antero Niittymaki, to post a 1.34 GAA, 93.4 save percentage, and three shutouts en route to Best Goalie and tournament MVP honours.
Hagman recalled: “I think it was good for Niittymaki that he was told before the tournament, ‘You’re the number one guy. We’re going to trust you, and you’re going to get your chance to play in the biggest tournament in the world.’”
The trust Russia has placed in its Olympic replacements has often paid off.
When an injured Alexei Kovalyov couldn’t make it to Nagano 1998, Sergei Fyodorov phoned then-Russian Hockey Federation president Alexander Steblin and offered to suit up in Kovalyov’s place – even though Fyodorov had barely played in the last year due to his contract holdout from Detroit. Nonetheless, Fyodorov wound up with a goal and five assists and helped Russia claim the silver medal.
In 2002, Igor Kravchuk of the Calgary Flames was thrilled to get the call when Dmitri Yushkevich couldn’t go to Salt Lake City due to a blood clot in his leg.
“Every Olympic Games is a highlight for me,” explained Kravchuk, “If you take a look at the preparation, you've got only one chance in four years. Not many athletes can get such a chance as I've had.”
He made the most of it. With Russia taking the bronze, Kravchuk played a regular shift and became, along with Vladislav Tretiak, the only hockey player to win four Olympic medals in his career. He is now a scout for the Russian Olympic team.
Canada, the defending Olympic champion from 2010, has had less good fortune with its recent high-profile replacement players.
When Anaheim Mighty Ducks superstar Paul Kariya had to bow out after being concussed by American-born Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Gary Suter in NHL action prior to Nagano 1998, he was replaced by Mark Recchi of the Montreal Canadiens. Recchi was a gold medalist at the 1988 World Juniors and 1997 Worlds, and when he retired in 2011, he was a three-time Stanley Cup champion ranked 12th in all-time NHL scoring with 1,533 points.
At the time, some questioned whether Recchi would take offence at not having been named to Team Canada in the first place. “Some people have been telling me I ought to tell them to get lost,” Recchi said with a laugh. “But you know, this is probably my last chance to play in an Olympic Games, and that’s something I've always wanted to do.”
Unfortunately, the Kamloops product’s scoring touch dried up at the first “NHL Olympics.” He had just two assists in five games. He and Wayne Gretzky were the only Canadian forwards who did not score at least one goal en route to a heart-breaking fourth-place finish.
In 2006, Jay Bouwmeester was summoned to replace Scott Niedermayer on Canada’s blue line. At that stage of his career, Niedermayer had already won every major title available to him, including the 1991 World Juniors, the 1992 Memorial Cup, the 2002 Olympics, the 2004 World Championship, the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, and three Stanley Cups (1995, 2000, 2003).
However, Bouwmeester, a two-time World Champion, failed to bring Niedermayer’s touch for either winning or scoring. He went pointless in six games and was on the ice for Alexander Ovechkin’s winning goal for Russia in the quarter-finals.
In 2010, there weren’t many big-name injury replacements to take note of. The United States came within a hair’s breadth of winning gold with defencemen Ryan Whitney and Tim Gleason taking over for original selections Paul Martin and Mike Komisarek. The Swedes bowed out in the quarterfinals with Franzen replacing Holmstrom.
But 2014 could be the year when replacements turn out to be irreplaceable.
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