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It’ll Be Teemu Against Teammate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When he temporarily trades his Mighty Duck jersey next week for the colors of his native Finland, Teemu Selanne hopes he doesn’t instinctively pass to Paul Kariya. Not that Kariya would mind. He’s playing for Canada, which will need all the offensive help it can get.

Mattias Norstrom, who will switch his King uniform for the Tre Kronor (three crowns) of Sweden, has resolved that if he’s playing against Canada and Rob Blake stands between him and the puck, competitiveness will take precedence over the well-being of his Los Angeles defense partner.

“I don’t know if I’ll pulverize him, but if the chance is there, I’ve got to take the body,” Norstrom said. “If Rob is in the same situation, I know that’s what he’d do.”

NHL teammates will become adversaries for two special weeks at Nagano, where the league will showcase its marquee players in hopes of planting the seeds of a marketing bonanza. But for players, this is about more than selling beer. Although they’re divided by nationality, they’re united in anticipating a superb tournament that, for the first time, will draw on every elite league at the peak of hockey season.

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“We play almost for free, compared to what I make with the Sabres,” said goaltender Dominik Hasek of Buffalo and the Czech Republic. “But to win the Olympic medal I would compare to the Stanley Cup.”

Said Selanne: “I think it’s going to be very interesting. On paper, Canada and the USA are going to have the best teams, but the gap between them and fifth or sixth is very small. Anybody will have a chance. That’s not like the basketball Dream Team, when you knew who was going to win and the only question was if they would beat other teams by 40 or 50.”

In its eagerness to gain worldwide exposure at the Olympics, the NHL agreed to halt its season for 17 days and compress its schedule. Players have grumbled, but their complaints will be forgotten when they take the ice in Nagano.

“We’re playing a lot of games in a short amount of time, but the opportunity to represent your country in one of the best competitions is a great thrill,” said center Joe Sakic of Colorado and Canada. “People are geared up for this and we’re all looking forward to the challenge.”

Eight teams will compete in a preliminary round beginning Feb. 7. The two top teams will advance to the final round to face the six major powers--Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Russia--starting Feb. 13.

Sweden is the defending Olympic champion, having won at Lillehammer in 1994 on a spectacular goal in the tiebreaking shootout by Peter Forsberg, now the NHL’s leading scorer.

“It’s kind of a whole different story this time,” Forsberg said, referring to the switch from amateurs to professionals.

The U.S. team is nearly identical to the squad that defeated Canada in a thrilling best-of-three final in the 1996 World Cup. However, Canada has revamped its roster, adding youth, speed and defense--and it also will have Kariya, who missed the World Cup because of an injury.

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“The advantage for me is, I don’t have to do a lot of coaching,” U.S. Coach Ron Wilson said. “We’ll be reacquainting guys with some of the things we did at the World Cup, how individuals made sacrifices throughout the World Cup. All these guys play on the top lines and the power play on their teams, and they can’t [on the Olympic team]. You need the role players. Everybody was proud to be part of a World Cup champion. It’s got to be the same approach if we want to win.”

Here’s a look at the field:

Canada

Olympic history: Gold in 1952, 1948, 1932, 1928, 1924. Silver in 1994, 1992, 1960, 1936. Bronze in 1968, 1956.

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Strengths: Two Stanley Cup-winning goalies in Colorado’s Patrick Roy and New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur--and Curtis Joseph is no slouch. Wayne Gretzky’s playmaking abilities should be enhanced on the wider Olympic surface. A mobile defense includes bangers Blake and Scott Stevens. Kariya provides speed and offensive explosiveness.

“I don’t think there’s a better player you’d want on your team. He’s the player we need,” Blake said.

Weaknesses: Leadership is suspect. Philadelphia center Eric Lindros was appointed captain, but he lacks a Mark Messier-like ability to lead his teammates.

Can win if: Brodeur adjusts to the angles of a rink that’s 15 feet wider, doesn’t challenge shooters too much and plays as well as he has for the Devils, for whom he has a 1.83 goals-against average and a league-high 29 wins. Forwards Brendan Shanahan and Joe Nieuwendyk must use their size to score from the slot, and Coach Marc Crawford has to unite his talented team on the theme of avenging the World Cup loss.

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Czech Republic

Olympic history: As Czechoslovakia, won silver in 1984, 1976, 1968 and 1948. Bronze in 1992, 1972 and 1964.

Strengths: Hasek last season became the first goalie chosen the NHL’s most valuable player in 35 years. He’s near that level again. He shares the NHL lead with seven shutouts and is near the top with a .922 save percentage. Right wing Jaromir Jagr has 22 goals and 62 points this NHL season. He grew up playing on international rinks and will enjoy the extra room.

Weaknesses: There’s not much up front beyond Jagr, Robert Reichel (20 goals, 49 points) and Martin Straka. And there’s little depth on defense after Petr Svoboda and Roman Hamrlik.

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Can win if: Hasek records a shutout every game and Jagr rises to the occasion and scores at least one goal every game.

Finland

Olympic history: Bronze in 1994. Silver in 1988.

Strengths: Selanne, who leads the NHL with 37 goals, is joined by Montreal center Saku Koivu and Dallas left wing Jere Lehtinen. The Finns have size and the big-game experience of wingers Jari Kurri of Colorado and Esa Tikkanen of Florida. The defense is decent with Aki Berg of the Kings, Teppo Numminen of Phoenix, Janne Niinimaa of Philadelphia and Jyrki Lumme of Vancouver.

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Weaknesses: The defense isn’t muscular, and many of the forwards will come from the Finnish Elite League, which isn’t as physical as the NHL. Goalie Jarmo Myllys has never been impressive.

Can win if: No gold, but a medal is possible if the defensemen play big and the forwards capitalize on their speed and puck-handling skills.

“We have two good lines and we can do some damage,” Selanne said. “We have a pretty good defense, maybe not as good as some of the other teams, but in a short tournament one thing can make a difference, like a hot goaltender.”

Russia

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Olympic history: Second time competing as an independent nation. Previously part of Unified Team, which won gold in 1992, and Soviet Union, which won gold in 1988, 1984, 1976, 1972, 1968, 1964 and 1956, and silver in 1980 and 1960.

Strengths: The offense is deep, with dynamic right wing Pavel Bure (31 goals, 56 points), left wing Valeri Kamensky (17 goals, 41 points), centers German Titov (15 goals, 30 points), Alexei Yashin (22 goals, 43 points) and Alexei Zhamnov (13 goals, 30 points). The Russian power play should produce, thanks to defensemen Alex Zhitnik and brothers Dmitri (Ducks) and Boris (Edmonton) Mironov.

Weaknesses: They’re not the pinpoint-passing “Big Red Machine” of old. There are some holes defensively. The forwards aren’t big, and Zhamnov is erratic.

Can win if: Goaltenders Mikhail Shtalenkov (Ducks) and Andre Trefilov (Chicago) get help from their defense and if their forwards dodge hits from bigger teams like the U.S. and Canada.

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“The Russians are a very talented group,” U.S. left wing John LeClair said. “They’ll be very dangerous. They grew up playing on the bigger ice surface and they’re used to it.”

Sweden

Olympic history: Gold in 1994. Silver in 1964. Bronze in 1988, 1984, 1980, 1952.

Strengths: Forsberg and Mats Sundin, who has 23 goals and 48 points for the awful Maple Leafs, are exceptional centers. The defense has finesse in Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom, nastiness in New York Ranger agitator Ulf Samuelsson, intelligence in Norstrom, experience in Washington’s Calle Johansson, and all-around skill. There’s speed on the wings.

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“I wouldn’t rank the Swedish team any lower than Canada or the U.S.,” Detroit center Steve Yzerman said.

Weaknesses: Goaltending is not as good as the other elements. Tommy Salo of the New York Islanders and former NHL player Tommy Soderstrom, who plays in the Swedish Elite League, are only adequate.

Can win if: The goalies step up. Soderstrom won’t have to adjust to wider surface, as NHL goalies will.

“Sweden will win,” Norstrom said. “I think we can upset a couple of teams. This is not a series. It’s one game and how you feel for that day. There is a lot of pressure on Team Canada from back home and on Team USA from the World Cup. Those guys can’t go home with bronze.”

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United States

Olympic history: Gold in 1980, 1960. Silver in 1972, 1956, 1952. Bronze in 1936.

Strengths: LeClair (35 goals, 58 points), Phoenix left wing Keith Tkachuk (34 goals, 56 points), Dallas center Mike Modano (18 goals, 48 points in 40 games) provide tenacity around the net. Ranger center Pat LaFontaine (20 goals, 53 points), St. Louis right wing Brett Hull (19 goals in 39 games) and Chicago right wing Tony Amonte (17 goals, 47 points) bring scoring and other skills. The big, mean, prolific defense is led by Kevin and Derian Hatcher, Brian Leetch and Chris Chelios.

Weaknesses: Ranger goalie Mike Richter, most valuable player of the World Cup, has struggled this season. So have Leetch, Florida goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, Duck goalie Guy Hebert and Islander defenseman Bryan Berard (minus-23).

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Can win if: Richter regains his old form, Wilson works his motivational magic again and Hull, the top scorer in the World Cup with seven goals and 11 points in seven games, gets hot.

"[The World Cup] was a great event and a great achievement, but this is a whole different thing,” Hull said. “I don’t know if we’re the favorite. Just to be part of a team with such great hockey players is great.”

THE REST

Slovakia is likely to win in its preliminary group because of its offense, led by King center Jozef Stumpel (14 goals, 52 points), Islander right wing Ziggy Palffy (26 goals, 49 points) and Washington right wing Peter Bondra (33 goals, 52 points).

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Belarus, with King left wing Vladimir Tsyplakov and Duck defenseman Ruslan Salei, will vie with Germany in the other group. Washington goalie Olaf Kolzig (2.26 goals-against average), Colorado defenseman Uwe Krupp and San Jose rookie center Marco Sturm are Germany’s top players.

“Olaf Kolzig has been as good a goaltender in the NHL this season as anybody,” Wilson said. “If Germany can survive that first round, I don’t want to face him.”


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