A history of hurt

Pre-Olympic injuries sometimes shape nations’ destinies

17.11.2013
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An injured Stamkos skates to the bench during the 2010 World Championship. A fractured tibia suffered last week could leave the star forward out of Canada's Olympic roster. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

When Steven Stamkos broke his right tibia against the Boston Bruins on November 11, it wasn’t just a blow for the Tampa Bay Lightning, but also for Team Canada’s hopes at the 2014 Olympics.

The first concern has to be the former 60-goal scorer’s long-term health. Even considering that Stamkos, 23, is famously committed to fitness and nutrition due to his association with ex-NHLer Gary Roberts’s gym, it’ll be challenging for him to get back in game shape in time for Sochi even if his recovery goes as well as possible.

Of course, this isn’t the first time an NHL injury just prior to the Olympics has forced a national team to rethink its roster plans.

In 1998, Paul Kariya was considered just as much of a lock for the Olympic team as Stamkos would be nowadays. A veteran of Canada’s 1994 silver medal team in Lillehammer, the flashy left wing from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks had earned two straight First Team All-Star berths and was on track for a 100-point season.

But Kariya never made it to Japan, the country of his father’s ancestors. On February 1, 1998, just 12 days before Canada’s opening game against Belarus in Nagano, the Vancouver native suffered a concussion when he was brutally cross-checked in the jaw by American-born defenceman Gary Suter of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Suter received a four-game suspension and $1,000 fine. Team Canada general manager Bobby Clarke was upset: “This is a great player in our game and you have someone who deliberately tries to hurt him because he scored a goal.”

When Canada lost 2-1 in the semi-final shootout against the eventual champion Czech Republic, Kariya’s offensive ability was missed, along with that of Joe Sakic (strained knee) and Mario Lemieux (retired).

In 2002, Sweden had to make do without superstar centre Peter Forsberg. At 28 years-old, the Modo Hockey product had already faced a plethora of injuries, including a ruptured spleen during the NHL playoffs and damaged tendons in his left ankle. He announced he would be stepping away from hockey to let his body heal in 2001-02.

“This is obviously a big blow to the game of ice hockey,” said IIHF President René Fasel at the time. “It is very disturbing that a player who is in his prime has to take a leave of absence or even retire because he has taken so much abuse over the last couple of years.”

Without Forsberg, Tre Kronor was perfect in the round-robin portion of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. But they came crashing down to earth in a 4-3 quarter-final loss to underdog Belarus that’s considered the second-biggest upset in Olympic history after the U.S.’s 1980 victory over the Soviet Union in the “Miracle on Ice.”

One Russian forward’s absence in 2002 opened the door for a future superstar to make his Olympic debut. When Viktor Kozlov of the Florida Panthers was unable to participate due to an abdominal strain, Detroit rookie Pavel Datsyuk took his place. Datsyuk chipped in a goal and two assists as the Russians claimed the bronze medal.

Injuries were a hot-button topic before the 2006 Olympics in Turin. The defending champions from Canada were particularly hard-hit.

When Steve Yzerman’s knee issues took him out of the picture in late 2005, Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky announced that no one else would be allowed to wear 19, the legendary Wing’s jersey number. On the blueline, two heroes from Salt Lake City were ruled out: Scott Niedermayer (knee) and Ed Jovanovski (abdominal injury). Lacking cohesion and confidence, Canada finished a disappointing seventh.

Other nations seemed to handle their personnel problems better in Turin. Nikolai Khabibulin was expected to be Russia’s starting netminder, but when a knee sprain in January 2006 cost the Chicago veteran his spot, Evgeni Nabokov of the San Jose Sharks took over. Nabokov got his team into the semi-finals, outduelling Martin Brodeur in Russia’s 2-0 quarter-final win over Canada before being ousted by the Finns.

The 2006 finalists were both missing some big names due to pre-Olympic injuries. Vancouver Canucks captain Markus Näslund chose not to play for Sweden due to a groin strain, thus missing out on his nation’s second Olympic gold of all time.

The Finns, who settled for silver, were thought to be shortstaffed in goal when both Miikka Kiprusoff and Kari Lehtonen sat Turin out with lower-body injuries. But that enabled Antero Niittymäki to deliver the finest performance of his career. The Philadelphia Flyers backup was named tournament MVP after earning three shutouts.

Fortunately, pre-Olympic injuries took less of a toll on 2010 rosters in Vancouver. The United States, though, had to move forward without two of its better blueliners.

Paul Martin, who’d led all New Jersey Devils defencemen with 33 points the year before, announced he’d have to withdraw due to a broken forearm. “While the decision was an extremely difficult one, I feel it is in my long-term best interest to not rush any return to the ice,” Martin said. Mike Komisarek of the Toronto Maple Leafs also couldn’t play since he had a shoulder injury. Regardless, only Sidney Crosby’s dramatic “Golden Goal” denied the Americans the title.

At this point in the season, most NHL Olympic hopefuls are either healthy or still have time to heal up from injuries in time for Sochi, with a few exceptions like Finnish defenceman Joni Pitkänen (left heel surgery). In the spirit of Fair Play and Respect, the IIHF wishes everyone the best of health heading into the biggest hockey tournament of 2014.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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