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Many Blackhawks have Olympic spots in back of their minds

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Updated: December 10, 2013 6:11AM



The answer’s always the same. No matter how many different times you ask it, no matter how many different ways you ask it, you’ll never get a professional athlete to admit he’s looking ahead, even the tiniest bit. It’s always one game at a time. The next game’s always the most important game.

So of course, Corey Crawford said he’s not thinking about how the first two months of the season are essentially his audition for Team Canada’s Olympic squad. Of course, Patrick Sharp said he’s focused on the task at hand, not realizing his dream of representing his country. Of course, Brandon Saad said he’s not sweating whether he can play his way on to the Team USA roster with a strong first half.

But it’s there. For the guys who aren’t guaranteed to be in or out for Sochi when the NHL takes its Olympic break three months from today, somewhere in the recesses of their minds, back behind the cliché sportspeak filter, it’s there. That dream, that desire, that concern — that motivation.

“For sure,” said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, saying what the players can’t allow themselves to say. “It would be a great honor, it would be a great achievement — a heck of an accomplishment. So I’m sure it’s there, and it’s part of their mind-set going into games, and every day.”

As many as 13 Hawks have at least some semblance of a shot to play for their countries in Sochi, though maybe nine or 10 have realistic chances. For stars such as Jonathan Toews (Canada), Patrick Kane (U.S.), Duncan Keith (Canada), Marian Hossa (Slovakia) and Niklas Hjalmarsson (Sweden), there’s no suspense. For others, the wait for the rosters to be announced next month can be excruciating. Even if they won’t admit it.

Sharp, despite all the success he’s had in his career, never has played in the Olympics, and has said that he badly wants to make Canada’s roster this time around. He even worked on the second line during Canada’s orientation camp in Calgary over the summer. But Canada’s stable of forwards is incredibly deep, and his spot is hardly guaranteed.

Still, he insisted that he’s not worried about the pressure to perform and play his way onto the team.

“It’s in the back of my mind,” he said. “But right now there are more important things, and that’s winning games with the Blackhawks.”

But Sharp — and everyone else — knows that they’re out there, watching. Swedish coach Per Marts was at a Hawks game earlier this season. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma is surely scouting American talent on his off nights. And St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock, an assistant to Canada coach Mike Babcock, admitted he finds himself scouting potential Olympians when he’s breaking down film for Blues opponents.

“You’re watching all the time,” Hitchcock said.

Crawford wasn’t even on Canada’s radar a year ago. But after backstopping the Hawks to the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup, he was invited to orientation camp. Canada is deep at goaltender, but has no clear-cut No. 1. Crawford is up against Carey Price, Roberto Luongo and Mike Smith, but said it’s not something he’s given much thought since the summer ended.

“We’ve been playing so much that our minds have been wrapped up in this, and our games here,” Crawford said. “I really have no clue what they’re thinking or who their options are for No. 1. Really, I’m just playing hockey and letting them make the decision.”

Johnny Oduya played for Sweden in the 2010 Vancouver Games, back when he was on the Devils. He’s hopeful he can make the team again, and joked that since he’s Hjalmarsson’s partner now, he can “sneak in” as part of a ready-made defensive pairing. And the recent news that Winnipeg’s Toby Enstrom is opting out of the Olympics helps his cause even more.

But like all the other Hawks on the bubble, he’s not stressing about it. Not outwardly, at least.

“If you get picked, it’s a lot of fun, it’s an honor to go there,” Oduya said. “And if not, you get a good two-week vacation. It’s a win-win situation either way. Either way, the main focus is on what we’re doing here.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus



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