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OLYMPIC FEATURE: THE ITALIAN JOB

Friday, 02.10.2006 / 2:28 PM / Los Angeles Kings | News
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OLYMPIC FEATURE: THE ITALIAN JOB
With representatives from five different countries, the Kings' locker room really isn't all that different from a lot of other workplaces in the melting pot that is Los Angeles. As is the case among co-workers across SoCal, Kings players check their passports and personal history at the door when they show up for work and commit themselves entirely to working toward one common goal.

For two weeks in February, however, all that will change. Present day alliances will take a back seat to old-school allegiances, friends will become foes and teammates will turn into archrivals, as five Kings stop being teammates long enough to represent their native countries in the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

With Craig Conroy (USA), Pavol Demitra (Slovakia), Alexander Frolov (Russia), Mattias Norstrom (Sweden) and Lubomir Visnovsky (Slovakia) bound for Italy, the Kings boast one of the more formidable contingents of Olympians representing any one NHL team.

The idea of competing against people you work side-by-side with in your regular job only figures to up the ante and intensify the experience.

"You want to beat your NHL teammates that much more because you don't want to hear about it all year long," said Aaron Miller, who was forced to withdraw from Team USA due to injury. "You want to win even more, so you can have bragging rights."

Along with Conroy, Miller was one of two Kings invited to play for Team USA in Turin. Unfortunately, Miller, who recently missed 16 games with back spasms, felt the injury would prevent him from playing.

For fellow American Conroy, the Turin Games will be his first Olympic experience, marking the culmination of a lifelong dream.

Conroy grew up in the upstate New York town of Potsdam, about two hours from Lake Placid, site of the 1980 Miracle on Ice.

"I was nine in 1980," the Clarkson University product says. "The Miracle on Ice remains a huge inspiration to me. At the age of nine, I went from being Guy Lafleur and all the other NHL stars to pretending I was Mike Eruzione."

Finally, at the age of 34, wearing red, white and blue is no longer just a dream.

"You just feel like this is it," Conroy says of reaching the goal. "A dream of mine that I thought maybe was slipping away is coming true. It's going to pretty special to play and be a part of the team. For me to be in my first Olympics, it will be pretty special."

Conroy cites the Olympic ideal and camaraderie as the source of his greatest excitement.

"Just to be over there," Conroy says, "to be in the Olympic Village and see all the other athletes, that's what's going to be fun for me. Just to be a part of it will be exciting."

Conroy will be joined by several fellow Kings in Turin, including Lubomir Visnovsky and Pavol Demitra. Visnovsky, a defenseman, and Demitra, a forward, were both selected to represent Slovakia.

Demitra, who will be among 18 NHL players on the Slovakian roster, says that when you play for your country, there is always an extra level of incentive.

"Every single game I play my best," Demitra says, "whether it's for Slovakia or last year during the lockout, but when you're playing for your country, it's different."

One of the things that make it different is the universal passion for hockey that exists in Demitra's homeland. There are fewer residents in Slovakia than there are in the greater Los Angeles basin, but Demitra says the entire nation rallies around the national team, which will include Ottawa's Marian Hossa, Minnesota's Marian Gaborik and Ladislav Nagy of the Phoenix Coyotes.

"Our country is six million people," Demitra says, "and six million people are watching the games. Hockey is No. 1 there. It's huge. Huge. It's like Christmas for the people back home. They have been waiting four years for the Olympic games and the hockey. Finally, they are going to see the best team that Slovakia has put together."

The Slovaks will be trying to amend for a disappointing finish at Salt Lake, where they never recovered from an opening round 3-0 loss to Germany. After a 6-6 tie with Latvia, and a 3-2 loss to Austria, the best they could do was defeat France, 7-1, for a seventh place finish.

It's a reminder that in a short tournament like the Olympics, teams must come together quickly. Demitra says his Slovakian teammates' familiarity with one another will be an asset in preventing a recurrence of the disappointment of 2002.

"We know each other very well," Demitra says. "We met in the summer for one day and got to know everyone. But most of us know each other already. I'm from Trencin, and I'd say 65 percent of the team is from that city. All the guys from the National team played in Trencin so everyone knows everyone. We know who we will play with, so we don't really need a training camp."

Demitra will be particularly comfortable playing with Visnovsky, his teammate in Los Angeles. The two also played together on Slovakia's 2002 Olympic team at Salt Lake.

Visnovsky has been the NHL's leading point producing defenseman this season and Demitra believes that the Olympics could be a coming out party for the man known as "Lubo."

"Lubo was huge eight years ago in Slovakia," Demitra says. "Him and (Ottawa's) Zdeno Chara are the best defensemen we have. Lubo probably was leading the league in Slovakia 10 years ago. He has a great shot and he has great skills. People will see how good he is."

"I was very happy," the soft-spoken Visnovsky says of being chosen to play for Slovakia. "Hockey is the No. 1 sport in our country and everybody is excited about the Olympics."

Count Visnovksy among those who believe the Olympic tournament's format makes it difficult to select a favorite.

"Several teams have a chance to win the gold medal because it's such a short tournament," he says.

Visnovsky also warns against counting Slovakia out.

"I'm really excited about what our team can do there this year," he says. "At the Olympics, you play for your country and you play for your heart. That will bring out the best in all of us."

In Frolov's homeland, the citizenry is accustomed to seeing its best players give their best in the Olympics, quite often with the best possible results. Historically, Russia has iced some of the greatest teams in the world. From 1956 to 1992 Russia took home gold in eight out of 10 Olympiads.

While Team Russia is not routinely mentioned among the tournament's top three teams this time around, the squad's overall skill level does give it a shot at challenging for a medal. Russia's 19 NHL players include rookie sensation Alexander Ovechkin, Alexei Kovalev and Evgeni Nabokov.

"We have a really good team," Frolov says, "so I'm looking forward to trying to win a gold medal. We have very good players, very good offensive players and we're really excited to play together."

Frolov says part of the thrill comes from knowing that everyone back home will be able to share in the excitement.

"It's really big," Frolov says. "All of Russia watches. All my friends and family will watch. We really want to win for the people back home."

For Norstrom, Turin will mark the third time he has represented his native Sweden in the Olympics. He previously competed in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, and again at Salt Lake City in '02.

Sweden, which took home gold in 1994 on Peter Forsberg's memorable shootout goal against Canada but hasn't medaled since, has 18 NHL players on its roster. Norstrom does not dispute the popular perception that Sweden could prove to be Canada's biggest challenger for supremacy at the Turin Games.

And after their stunning upset loss to Belarus at Salt Lake, Sweden is out to make amends.

With players like Mats Sundin and Nicklas Lidstrom, the Swedes are loaded. "We know we have the talent to win the gold medal," Norstrom says.

A lot of teams feel the same way. If Sweden, Russia, Slovakia or the United States can claim the gold, the Kings will have every right to feel a little golden too.