Commentary

A new way of thinking

Shedding the NHL mindset for the Olympics is a much harder task than it seems

Updated: February 10, 2014, 5:01 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

SOCHI, Russia -- A couple of nights ago, Dustin Brown incurred the wrath of Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards for a hit on Ryan Murray.

Now Richards, a member of the U.S. coaching staff, and Brown will join forces with Team USA to try to end a 34-year Olympic gold-medal drought.

A night later, Olli Maatta and Jussi Jokinen were combining for a goal and two assists as the Pittsburgh Penguins dropped a 4-3 decision in a shootout against the New York Rangers.

On Monday afternoon, they took to the practice surface at the sparkling Bolshoy Ice Dome for their first practice as teammates with the Finnish national team with more than two points on the line.

On Friday, Patrick Sharp was feted in a pregame celebration in Arizona as one of 15 Olympians in a game between the Chicago Blackhawks and Phoenix Coyotes that featured an appearance by members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic gold-medal team.

[+] EnlargePatrick Sharp
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesIt's been a grind for Patrick Sharp as a Blackhawk, but he says he's ready to change gears and go for the gold.
Now he's preparing for his first Olympics with a Canadian team stacked from top to bottom.

And so it goes.

The great transmogrification of players and coaches from NHL mindset to Olympic mindset may be one of the most compelling backstories of the Olympic hockey tournament since the NHL first started taking part in 1998.

The tournament officially begins Wednesday afternoon local time, but in reality, it began Monday with the arrival of the NHL's players via four charters from Newark, N.J., and Atlanta and the process of shedding the NHL sensibilities and replacing them as quickly as possible with an Olympic point of view.

"Me and [Ryan] Kesler fought maybe two weeks ago, and we're fine now," Brown said after the Americans had completed a late-evening skate to help shake off the jet lag. "It's one of those things that's part of the NHL game. Again, a lot of us know each other. Even at the NHL level, it's the other way around where we're still trying to probably kill each other even though you know them off the ice.

"I think the good thing about our team is a lot of guys [have] kind of played together at some point or another. Even last time, where there were a lot of guys who didn't know who each other were. It's a little more comfortable and at ease this time."

The transformation from the NHL -- with some 150 NHL players expected to take part in the Sochi tournament, up slightly from the Vancouver Games four years ago -- or the Kontinental Hockey League or wherever will mean different things to different people, and it will be a bigger challenge for some.

For some, it will be an adjustment to the wider ice surface or a new set of teammates or to playing on a stage unlike any other in sport.

But know this, the ability to make that adaptation, to become fully in the Olympic moment physically and mentally, is integrally tied to success in the coming days.

"I think it's really fun to be here now," a still-sweaty Sharp said after the Canadians went through their first workout after landing in Russia. "It feels like we're settled in already after one day. I know personally I've been looking forward to this for a long time. I had an obligation to the Blackhawks and I want to play as well as I could in the month of January, but I'll be honest this was really wearing on my mind for a few weeks.

"I think you play in the NHL, 82 games, practices, the same faces every day, a lot of the same lineups, you get pretty comfortable with the players you're playing with. Coming over here, every line's got great players on it. You've got to take that extra second to mentally get focused to see who you're playing with, their tenancies, and make the right play. But it's kind of neat to see so many great players on a team. Even some guys have nerves missing passes on that first day, but I think that's natural. It just shows how excited we are to be here."

Although much will be made of the physical issues -- jet lag, bigger ice surface -- there will be other challenges facing players.

"For our players in particular, the biggest difference for them [is] when you talk about the size of the ice surface, but I think it's adjusting to playing a lesser role," Canada's executive director and former Olympian Steve Yzerman said. "You've got forwards that are used to playing 21 to 22 minutes a game that are going to play 10 and 11 and defensemen that are used to 27 playing 18. That's a huge adjustment for them all."

Pressure? Canada felt it keenly four years ago.

But that doesn't mean there is any less now that it is among the visiting countries.

"You kind of tune it all out," Yzerman said. "The hard part is the buildup to it all. Once you're at the games or once you're in the games and playing, you kind of tune everything out. These players will treat this like being in the Stanley Cup finals where they are basically playing hockey, they're eating, they're sleeping. You tune everything out. We all have goals. Players, us as management, Hockey Canada, the Detroit Red Wings, the Tampa Bay Lightning. We all have goal and expectations, and we try to live up to our own expectations, so I don't worry terribly about the outside pressure."

[+] EnlargeSteve Yzerman
Abelimages/Getty ImagesGiven the star power on these teams, particularly Canada, Steve Yzerman says players need to subjugate personal expectations for the better of the team.
Certainly no team is anticipating the coming days with more excitement and perhaps apprehension than the host Russians.

"The pressure is going to come 100 percent, but right now we have jet lag, a different time," said Alexander Ovechkin after the Russians had their team picture taken on the big ice at Bolshoy and then went through a spirited practice that was marked by an up-tempo pace. "Now it's night, and I'm pretty sure you guys have the same thing for a couple of days. You just don't realize what is going on, and I'm pretty sure after tomorrow it's going to be different."

The Finns have been decimated by injuries to top players, but they, like all the traditional hockey-playing nations, understand that this tournament is full of surprises, and the potential for upsets exists provided teams can hit their stride at the right moment.

"I think it varies a little bit, different guys," Jokinen told reporters after the Finns' skate. "Some guys have tough time to getting comfortable in the time zones and sleep and stuff like that, and some guys have a tough time [adjusting to the] bigger ice.

"For me, personally, I think it's the bigger ice was the most challenge for me. I've always been pretty good going from Europe to North America and North America to Europe, so that won't be an issue for me. You just have so much more time here. At least in your head you have more time than you think so you have to be able to use that time and use it wisely."

For players like Jokinen, 30 and playing in his second Olympic tournament (with the Finns when they captured silver in 2006), internalizing the pomp and circumstance of the Olympics may be easier than, say, for the 19-year-old Maatta.

"Yeah, it feels pretty good," said Maatta, who has sparkled for the Penguins in his first NHL season. "I feel like I'm a little boy just watching all these top-rated athletes here -- like everybody, even the ski jumpers, skiers, those guys. I'm just here watching. I'm a big fan of winter sports, and it's awesome experience thus far. I don't think I'm getting used to it too much, but it's awesome."

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