International Ice Hockey Federation

Grabner’s simple goal

Grabner’s simple goal

Austrian speedster set to fly in Sochi

Published 13.02.2014 10:30 GMT+4 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Grabner’s simple goal
Last time Michael Grabner represented Austria two years ago in Division I play. Photo: Samo Vidic
For Canada and Russia, it’s gold or bust. For a lower-echelon country like Austria, Olympic hockey success is measured differently. Michael Grabner knows that.

“We’re just trying to represent our country as best we can and make them proud,” the 26-year-old New York Islanders winger told after an Austrian practice at Bolshoy Ice Dome. “I think everyone is going to be excited for our start. We’ll do our best job.”

Just being in Sochi at all is a success for the Austrians. It’s their 13th time at the Olympics and their first since Salt Lake City 2002. After beating Italy and the Netherlands in regulation time at the Olympic qualification tournament a year ago, all Austria needed to advance was a single point against host Germany, and they got it with a 3-2 overtime loss in Bietigheim-Bissingen.

Neither Grabner nor his more famous Austrian teammate, Thomas Vanek, took part in that tournament due to their NHL commitments. But now they’re reaping the benefits and soaking up the Winter Games atmosphere in what some have dubbed the “Russian Riviera.”

“It’s pretty good here,” said Grabner. “It’s nice weather, and I think we got adjusted pretty quickly. I got some sleep the last couple of days and felt better today than yesterday already.”

He didn’t bring along any family members. His wife Heather is back home, taking care of their two-year-old son Aidan, whom Grabner felt was too young for the long trip and time zone changes.

In the Olympic Village, the fleet-footed forward is rooming with another Austrian NHLer, Michael Raffl, who is a fellow Villach native. The Philadelphia Flyers rookie has seven goals and 11 assists in 46 games this season. They’ll start the Olympics together on a line with Brian Lebler.

“I’ve known Raffl for a long time,” Grabner said. “We grew up together so it’s nice to share the experience with him and hang out with him.”

It would be nice if Grabner can increase his production on the world’s biggest hockey stage.

The former first-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks (14th overall) was held pointless in his last five games heading into the Olympic break, and has recorded just nine goals and 11 assists in 56 games so far this year. It’s a far cry from the 34-goal campaign that made him a Calder Trophy finalist in his rookie season of 2010/2011 with the Islanders.

“Personally, it’s not been the best year so far,” Grabner conceded. “But there are still 20 games left. I’m going to try to work myself out of this. Obviously we didn’t have as much success as we wanted to as a team either.”

Grabner feels he knows what to expect out of Finland in Austria’s opener on Thursday. “They’re a fast team with good puck movement,” he said. “They have a lot of skilled players over there. At the same time, it’s the first game and I think there’ll be a lot of emotions and adrenalin. It’ll be fast the first 10 minutes and everyone will be excited. We’ve got to try to keep our emotions in check and focus on the task at hand.”

After facing Finland, it won’t get any easier. Canada looms next, and that’ll be a chance for Grabner to go head-to-head with his NHL teammate John Tavares. The 23-year-old New York Islanders captain currently ranks third in league scoring with 66 points.

“We talked about it the last couple of weeks,” Grabner said. “He’s one of the best players in the world. It’s going to be fun to be on the other side against him. I know how hard he works, how much effort he puts into his game.”

Even though Grabner only played 20 games for the Canucks in 2009/2010, he did get a feel for star goalie Roberto Luongo, who will start for Canada against Austria.

“I know him pretty well from practices,” said Grabner. “He’s a great goalie. He’s big. We’ve just got to get some pucks to the net and traffic and not make it easy on him.”

As for playing professionally with Vanek, everyone’s aware that the two-time 40-goal man won’t necessarily become a fixture on Long Island, as he recently turned down a contract extension offer.

But that doesn’t mean Grabner isn’t relishing the rare opportunity to have a fellow Austrian as an NHL teammate. In addition to their on-ice exploits, have they sought out the finest Austrian cuisine in the Big Apple together?

“Actually, I like to switch it up,” Grabner said with a chuckle. “We like our steaks and stuff there, and keep the Austrian food for the summer.”

The Austrian hockey team met some of their fellow countrymen – biathletes and speedskaters – at the Austria House in Sochi. Grabner said he wouldn’t mind trying speed skating himself, but would prefer a shorter race, like 500 metres.

“10K would be too much,” he quipped. “I would die not even halfway through.”

If he’s going to take it to the point of no return, it’ll preferably be on the Olympic hockey rink.

“We don’t know when we’re going to be back here on this stage. For a lot of guys, it’s their first Olympics. Who knows? It might be my last. We haven’t been in the Olympics for a while. We just have to do our best job.”


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