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Players say Olympic gold, Stanley Cup special in their own way

VANCOUVER BC - FEBRUARY 28:  Brent Seabrook #7 Jonathan Toews #16 Duncan Keith #2 Canadduring ice hockey men's gold

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 28: Brent Seabrook #7, Jonathan Toews #16 and Duncan Keith #2 of Canada during the ice hockey men's gold medal game between USA and Canada on day 17 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on February 28, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Brent Seabrook;Jonathan Toews;Duncan Keith

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Updated: March 20, 2014 6:35AM

SOCHI, Russia — International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel, who has the task of persuading reluctant NHL owners
to send their players to South
Korea for the Winter Olympics in 2018, was doing his best sales job, waxing poetic Tuesday about the magic of an Olympic championship.

‘‘With the players, I’m so pleased they want to go,’’ Fasel said. ‘‘There is nothing like an Olympic gold medal in the life of an athlete. Nothing.’’

Without missing a beat, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman put his hand on Fasel’s shoulder and interjected: ‘‘Except for winning the Stanley Cup.’’

Of course, the two are on oppo-
site sides of the discussion. For those in the middle — the players who are fortunate enough to compete for both — it’s a tougher distinction to make. Your country or your team? A two-week tournament or a season in the trenches? A gold medal or the silver Cup?

Might as well ask them to pick their favorite child.

‘‘I think it’s a pretty amazing
experience to win a gold medal,’’ said Jonathan Toews, who has won two Cups with the Blackhawks and a gold medal with Canada. ‘‘But I always say the Stanley Cup is equally special in a different way, just because there are so many challenges along the way throughout a long season. And to find a way to win at the end is pretty amazing. They’re both equally special.’’

In other words, all the intensity and pressure of a Cup playoff is condensed into a five-day span this week, with the Olympic quarterfinals taking place Wednesday. With pool play over, it’s all single elimination from here on out.

The United States will take on the Czech Republic, which held off Slovakia 5-3 in a qualification game Tuesday. Marian Hossa scored twice off assists from
Michal Handzus, but the Slovaks couldn’t complete a comeback from a 4-0 deficit. Canada draws Latvia, which shocked Switzerland 3-1. On the other side of the bracket, Sweden gets Cinderella Slovenia, which stunned Austria 4-0 for its second victory of the tournament, and host Russia, which blanked Norway 4-0, gets Finland in the highest-profile matchup of the day.

Pool play can get pretty intense, as the Team USA-Russia game showed. But things get ratcheted up significantly from here.

‘‘It’s similar to the playoff style now,’’ Czech defenseman Michal Rozsival said. ‘‘Every game is Game 7.’’

Even without the buildup of years of work as a team and 10 long months of the regular season and the playoff grind, the allure of the gold medal creates the same level of pressure and excitement as the Stanley Cup. Perhaps even more for European players who left home to pursue a hockey career in North America.

‘‘It’s a different sense of pride,’’ Swedish defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. ‘‘You know that all your relatives and families and buddies are watching the games back home, and you don’t want to disappoint those people. Espe-
cially for a guy like me, who’s been away from my country for seven years
almost. It makes you proud to wear the jersey.’’

Back at the news conference, Fasel tried to win his ‘‘argument’’ with Bett-
man by saying, ‘‘Look at the faces here next Sunday, when the players will get the Olympic gold medal.’’ And Bettman again chimed in, ‘‘It would be like winning the Stanley Cup.’’

Ask the players competing on the ice, and they’ll tell you the same thing: They’re both right.

‘‘You can’t compare them; it’s totally different,’’ said Patrick Kane, who has won two Cups with the Hawks and a silver medal with Team USA. ‘‘But they’re both obviously very high competition and very high levels of hockey, so it’s fun to be a part of them both. . . . Now you’re here in the Olympics, so it seems like it’d be great to get the gold medal. But we have something special in Chicago, too.’’


Twitter: @marklazerus

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