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VANCOUVER -- Four years ago, the Swiss Olympic team was the darling of the 2006 Torino Games.
The unheralded Swiss upended Canada 2-0 in round-robin play, and while they did not win a medal, they proved they could not be taken lightly in these best-on-best tournaments.
The Swiss will open the Vancouver tournament Tuesday at noon PT against a U.S. team that will be heavy favorites to win the opener. But that doesn't faze the Swiss, who will ice a squad with three NHLers in Anaheim netminder Jonas Hiller, New York Islanders defenseman Mark Streit and Montreal defenseman Yannick Weber. There is also Andres Ambuhl of the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack and junior defenseman Luca Sbisa, so Switzerland may even be stronger than it was in 2006.
The Americans are a "really good team. Obviously their team is loaded with NHL guys with a lot of skill, a lot of speed," Streit said after the Swiss skated Monday morning at Canada Hockey Place
Both he and Hiller, the two most important players on the team, arrived at the athletes' village late Sunday night and were admittedly not quite adjusted to Olympic life yet.
"I think for us it's a big thing to get used to the smaller ice rink right away, the intensity of the game and the speed," said Streit, who has been one of the top offensive defensemen in the NHL the past three seasons. "They're probably going to come out really hard."
"When you look at their players, they probably have the better individual talent than we do. But hopefully we play well as a team [under our] our system; that's been our strength the last years even in Torino," Streit added. "When we play well as a team, we can play some good games and challenge the opponents."
Just as Martin Gerber was a big part of the team's success four years ago, Hiller, who supplanted Jean-Sebastien Giguere (Giguere is now in Toronto) as the starter in Anaheim and recently signed a long-term deal with the Ducks, will be counted on to hold the fort. He's even sporting a new mask to mark the moment.
"It's a new mask, same mask wear in Anaheim, just a different paint job. Just got it a couple days ago," Hiller said. "I'm real excited; I think it's a cool design. A couple of months ago when I fell asleep, I was thinking about some stuff and thought I should get my own mask for the Olympics. It's just a huge event and something special. I wanted to have something special to wear.
"I really like the way it looks and I'm excited to play with it tomorrow."
Hiller also had a bird's-eye view of the triumphant return of Canadian Olympian Ryan Getzlaf in Sunday's victory over Edmonton. Getzlaf saw his Olympic dream hanging by a thread because of an ankle injury. But he returned to action against the Oilers, had a four-point night with two goals and two assists, and was confirmed as a member of Canada's Olympic roster Monday.
"He's a great player and showed it again last night. He's so important for us and he can be a factor for the Canadian team. I probably wish he wouldn't be here. No, I'm happy for him," Hiller joked.
More from Swiss practice: Sprunger's comebackRest assured, Feb. 16, 2010 was circled on Julien Sprunger's calendar for several months now.
The forward from Switzerland's Olympic hockey squad needed to envision that opening game against Team USA to help him overcome the greatest challenge of his life. The 24-year-old's career nearly ended last May at the World Championships in Switzerland after he was rammed into the boards by Team USA forward David Backes.
On Tuesday, Sprunger will step onto the same ice as Backes for the first time since the incident, an emotional moment in the young player's life.
"The first 10 minutes after the hit, I couldn't move my legs or my arms," Sprunger told ESPN.com on Monday. "It sure makes you think. You don't know if you're ever going to walk again, let alone play hockey. It was terrible."
Backes said he recalled the hit.
"There's no ill-intent there. Obviously it's a hard hockey play. He's in a dangerous spot by being five feet away from the boards. His head's down and I'm thought of as a physical player and I'm finishing my check and the puck's right between his feet," Backes said.
"The consequences of the hit, if I could take it back, obviously I don't want anybody to get hurt, I'd take it back. If he's still got ill feelings then we'll hash it out on the rink tomorrow. But whatever's going to happen is going to happen. I'm glad that he's obviously back in the line-up, he's playing on the team and he's at the Olympics this year. That's good news," the hard-nosed winger said.
Sprunger, a fourth-round pick by the Minnesota Wild in 2004, needed neck surgery last summer. The Olympics, he said, were the last thing on his mind. But Switzerland coach Ralph Krueger made him believe the Vancouver Games could be a possibility.
"The next day after my operation, I had a chat with Coach Krueger and he told me that my motivation should be making it to the Olympics and playing that first game against the U.S.," said Sprunger. "That's a game [Tuesday], that's really special for me for obvious reasons. It was a game that gave me a goal to strive for as I recovered."
Recovering physically was one thing. The battle between the ears was the other.
"I did some work with a psychologist for 4-5 months, it was to desensitize the accident, to make sure I wasn't scared when I got back on the ice," said Sprunger. "So it's in the past. I will never forget it, but I've moved on. It's not about revenge tomorrow."
Sprunger said he has never spoken to or heard from Backes. "I don't even know if he remembers the incident," he said.
Vokoun rumorA source close to the Czech national team told us Monday that Tomas Vokoun was overheard telling teammates he thought he might be moved to the Philadelphia Flyers. That was news to a Florida Panthers front-office source, who said the goalie hasn't even been approached to waive his no-movement clause.
Vokoun, who has been terrific this season, has one more year left on his deal at $6.3 million.
Norway a 'sacrificial lamb'?Norwegian coach Roy Johansen was asked if he was familiar with the term "sacrificial lamb."
"Yes, of course," Johansen told a couple of reporters the day before Norway opens the Olympic hockey tournament against host Canada.
It's a term that might come in handy as the powerful Canadians will be looking to start off the 2010 tournament on the right foot in front of a rabidly excited home crowd Tuesday afternoon.
The Norwegians, competing in their first Olympic hockey tournament since 1994, won't have many reasons to think they can upset Canada. But if there is one thing going for the Norwegians, it's the reminder of a game at the 2008 World Championships in Halifax, where they were narrowly defeated by the Canadians 2-1.
"You have to ask yourself what will be our advantage," Johansen said. "I think all the players know that we can play together as a team. Play tight defense and play 100 percent and we can pay the price, to block shots and do everything that will make us a hard team to meet, that will be our philosophy."
One key component will be the play of netminder Pal Grotnes, who was the goalie in that 2008 game against Canada. He smiled when asked if he thought he might be in the Canadians' heads.
"I don't think they've thought about that. It's a different team. They probably won't know about me," said Grotnes, 32, who called the game the best of his career. "I played good. I got to see all the shots. I had some luck on a breakaway. Rick Nash broke his stick. I was in a zone."
Grotnes is a stark reminder of the different worlds that will intersect at this tournament. Until he received an Olympic "scholarship," or stipend to concentrate on preparing for these Olympic Games, Grotnes' real job was a carpenter. It often meant playing games on the road and having to get up at 6:30 a.m. to get back to his hammers and nails.
"I don't miss that. It's nice to do something else. It's been a good year," Grotnes said.
Although Norway doesn't have an NHLer on its roster, there is defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen, who was recently traded from Philadelphia to Detroit and sent to the minors. The top sniper for Norway will likely be former NHLer Patrick Thoresen.
A former Edmonton Oiler and Philadelphia Flyer, Thoresen played with Canadian forward Mike Richards and would like to prove through the course of this tournament he's still got NHL skills.
"I remember when we qualified [for the Olympics] last February. I think it was just a week or two after they nominated the groups, so we knew early that we were going to play against Canada in the first game," Thoresen said. "Personally, I've been looking forward to it for a year now and it's a good opportunity for me to show what I'm good for and a good opportunity for me to help the team take a step forward to the right direction. I think we have a lot of talented players that are doing good in their European leagues and Norway's a team that has taken a lot of steps the last few years and this is another chance to take another one."
Latvia BelievesBy Pierre LeBrun
One of the greatest moments I ever witnessed in my sportswirting career came at the 2000 World Hockey Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia. Picture a soldout crowd in a brand-new, 18,000-seat arena, newly elected president Vladimir Putin on hand and a home team that had Pavel Bure and Alexei Yashin among a star-studded NHL roster.
Then picture Arturs Irbe standing on his head as little Latvia upset Russia 3-2 -- made the whole Russian crowd stand for the Latvian national anthem -- the veteran goalie wiping away tears all the while. Just a decade earlier, he stood up with his fellow Latvians in Riga when Soviet tanks rolled in.
So yeah, that 3-2 win at the 2000 worlds was about as good as it gets for Latvia.
"That was a big, big win. Not just for us, but for the whole country," Latvian defenseman Karlis Skrastins said Monday after practice.
Krastins played in that game. He considers it a moment he'll never forget in his life. Now he's the veteran on a Latvian team here at the 2010 Olympics that just happens to open up against Alex Ovechkin and mighty Russia on Tuesday night.
"We are ready. We are not scared," said the Colorado Avalanche blue-liner. "We are respecting who we are playing, but we are ready.
"We can do some upsets, I believe in our team."