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Wednesday, January 6, 2010
Martin hoping Olympic dream still comes true


He doesn't even bother now to temper the congratulations from family and friends with an explanation of what might or might not be.

Why explain the uncertainty, the gut-wrenching decision that may lurk down the road?

So, Paul Martin graciously accepts the best wishes and kudos for having been named to the 2010 U.S. Olympic hockey team and waits and wonders whether that long-held dream will slip from his grasp.

"I don't even tell them anymore that it might not happen," Martin told ESPN.com this week. "It's been tough. It's been a little frustrating."

The New Jersey Devils defenseman and native of Elk River, Minn., is a thoughtful, cerebral player on and off the ice. He is also, it turns out, given to understatement.

On Oct. 24, less than a month into the season, Martin found himself trying to cover Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin in front of the New Jersey goal during a Pittsburgh power play. The puck found its way to Bill Guerin, who ripped a shot that caught Martin on the left forearm. It hurt, but he played a shift or two more; he then got slashed, and that was it.

He hasn't played since.

At the time, Martin had surgery to repair a fractured bone in that forearm and was expected to miss four to six weeks. Plenty of time to get back into Olympic form. At one point, he returned to the ice and began skating in anticipation of a return to the New Jersey lineup.

But the bone hadn't healed properly, and doctors decided they needed to perform a secondary procedure, which included a titanium plate and screws, to help the alignment of the bone.

Could they have done the procedure earlier? Maybe. Those are thoughts that are difficult to ignore as the clock ticks toward the start of the Olympic tournament Feb. 16.

"I've only been looking forward," Martin said.

But it's difficult. Each day away from the rink means another day closer to seeing an Olympic dream snuffed out.

"It is tough," Martin said. "You're hoping, but at the same time, your dream of playing in the Olympics is slowly drifting away."

If Martin were healthy or even if he were expected to rejoin the lineup in the coming days, the decision to name him to the team would have been a no-brainer. But Martin's return is expected to be much closer to the start of the tournament. He was expected to be a leader along a young blue line, a smart player with the puck used to playing big, solid minutes against opposing teams' top players. He still is. Maybe.

Four years ago, Martin was part of the U.S. taxi squad at the Torino Olympics. How he wasn't included on the main roster remains a mystery, but the 2006 experience whetted Martin's appetite for the 2010 Vancouver Games.

He recalled how excited he was to go to U.S. orientation camp outside Chicago this past August, to imagine the excitement of playing in an Olympic tournament in North America. Now, he asks doctors every day whether there's more he can do, anything he can do, to help speed the healing process as he wills his body to give him a chance that may not come again.

Martin will turn 29 the week after the Olympic tournament. Four years is a long time in any pro sport. In four more years, who knows whether the NHL will be back at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia?

Doctors believe Martin is ahead of schedule in terms of recovering from the second surgery but have not yet cleared him to return to the ice for light skating. Another two weeks in a cast, then a short period of time before returning to practice, and then what? Two weeks to get in shape? Will it be enough?

Martin imagines his arm will be stiff and there will be a need to build up strength again. And what of his stamina? He wouldn't have played for some three months.

Martin said he won't go to Vancouver if he's not ready and can't compete at a high-enough level that will allow him to help his team.

At some point, he will tell U.S. GM Brian Burke to take his name off that list and pick someone else to go to Vancouver and pull on that American jersey.

"That'll be tough for me to do. I try not to think about it too much," Martin said.

So, when people greet him warmly and wish him well in Vancouver, Martin smiles and accepts their well wishes and hopes against hope that it will be so.