- Scott Burnside, NHL
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ARLINGTON, Va. -- Injuries are always going to play havoc with the selection of Olympic rosters no matter which country is involved, but the U.S. management team will be paying close attention to the health of center Ryan Kesler. When he’s been healthy and at his best, Kesler has proved he’s a dominant player, a difference-maker. But the former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the game’s top two-way forward has struggled with a variety of injuries over the past couple of years. He is finally healthy.
“I’m good. Finally. Two years,” he said Monday.
The injuries and the time spent recovering from them took their toll on the Vancouver Canuck.
“Mentally tough. It wasn’t fun, especially this time around when you go through 10 months of rehab and break your foot on your first game back, that was tough to take. But it makes you stronger as a person. I’m healthy now and finally able to enjoy a summer with no rehab,” said Kesler, who played in only 17 regular-season games after the lockout.
Not only is Kesler hoping to parlay good health into Olympic success, he’s also looking forward to getting the Canucks back on a Stanley Cup track after two straight first-round playoff exits.
The Canucks were swept by San Jose this past spring, and it cost Alain Vigneault his job as head coach. He was replaced by John Tortorella, who was an assistant coach with the U.S. Olympic team four years ago.
“We have the same core. Obviously we know what that core can do,” Kesler said. “I think we’re going to have a new identity this year. Obviously a new coach behind the bench. He’s going to coach a little differently than our last coach, and that’s good sometimes. Sometimes you need change and a fresh face to energize your group.”
“I’ve played for Torts a little bit, and we all know what he’s all about.”
Looking for luck
If there is one player attending the U.S. orientation camp who could use a little Olympic karma, it’s Pittsburgh defenseman Paul Martin.
As a young player with the New Jersey Devils, Martin was selected to the so-called taxi squad for the 2006 Olympics in Torino. He, Matt Cullen and Hal Gill were in Italy in case of injury but did not stay in the athletes’ village and were in many ways isolated from the rest of the U.S. team.
Four years later, a virtual lock to make the 2010 team, Martin was struck by a puck early in the season and broke his forearm.
“Bill Guerin missed the net by six feet and hit me with the puck,” Martin said.
Initially the prognosis was that he would be out eight weeks, but that stretched to 10 or 11. Then the doctors worried the arm wasn’t healing properly, so Martin ended up at a specialist who ordered surgery the next day.
Even then, with pins and plates in his arm, Martin was hopeful he would heal in time to make the trip to Vancouver. But slowly it became clear it wasn’t going to happen.
“It was tough," Martin said. "As far as disappointment and frustration as far as an athlete goes, that has been my toughest thing to get over so far in my career. I didn’t have expectations as far as was I going to be on the team. But I think when you realize that that opportunity’s there and you get named but you can’t do it, it was a tough pill to swallow, and I struggled with it for a while.”
After a dreadful 2011-12 season, Martin rebounded last season to the kind of form that made him a shoo-in for the Vancouver team. He and defense partner Brooks Orpik were tasked with shutting down opposing teams’ top lines every night and were key penalty-killing specialists, while Martin was also an effective member of the Pens’ power-play unit.
Orpik was a member of the 2010 Olympic team and is also an invitee to the orientation camp.
“I think it definitely helps," Martin said. "I think there is that comfort factor there. Especially after the year last year, I think we found our identity again and especially me. He’s so easy to play with, and obviously he played in the last Olympics and with the coaching staff that we have, I’m very familiar with."
At 32 years old, Martin is a realist. He knows he must take advantage of this opportunity, as it might well be the last chance at playing in an Olympics.
“I’m really excited about this opportunity and the chance to play. Wherever it might be, right side, left side, I just want to play,” the Minneapolis native said.
“I just want to go.”
Where to keep a medal
One member of the Vancouver team who is at the orientation camp has a special place for his silver medal.
“It’s tucked away. I’ve been meaning to put it in a safe, but it’s in this fake stack of books, but it opens up. It’s not really books, it opens up,” forward Zach Parise said.
Does he take it out and look at it sometimes?
“Yeah, I had to bring it out. I don’t just at night grab it and sit on the couch and look at it, but I had to bring it out to New York a couple of weeks ago. I guess that was kind of the first time in a year or two that I’d looked at it. It’s cool to have,” Parise said.
One thing U.S. GM David Poile has made clear is that players who play well at the start of the season will be doing themselves a favor as far as making the final roster. Knowing that they are being scrutinized by the management team that includes NHL GMs Stan Bowman, Dale Tallon, Dean Lombardi, Ray Shero and Paul Holmgren along with former GMs Brian Burke and Don Waddell may be a bit unnerving, especially for the younger players.
“It’s definitely not going to be easy at all.”
Building the sport
St. Louis Blues captain David Backes said he still runs into people who talk about the 2010 gold-medal game and how important the game was to them. He said he believes that NHL players being in the Olympics is important for growing interest in the game, not just in the United States but around the world.
“If you watched that gold-medal game and didn’t get turned on to hockey, I don’t know if the game’s for you,” Backes said.
One member of the 2010 team who saw his stock rise in recent months is the Colorado Avalanche's Paul Stastny, who was a dynamo for the U.S. at the world championships with 15 points, second among all players as the U.S. won a surprise bronze medal.
After he reached a career-high 79 points in 2009-10, Stastny’s production has declined, but he said he’s hoping to carry over the same style of play that gave his success at the world championships.
“I think I just will try and play the way I did there. Kind of just play at ease again and just have fun,” Stastny said.
Early in a player’s career, he plays with nothing to lose, Stastny noted. “Then sometimes maybe you put a little bit too much pressure on yourself when things aren’t going well,” he said.
With a new coach in former Avalanche star Patrick Roy and new management under former Avs captain Joe Sakic, Stastny said there’s a different buzz around the team, and he’s looking forward to being part of that.
“I think it’s just that sense of urgency, that passion. There was already that feeling going on all summer,” he said.
11dScott Burnside and Craig Custance