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4 years later, Lightning player observes from afar

Petr Svoboda, who scored the winning goal for the Czechs in 1998, sits out these Games.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002

PROVO, Utah -- He sat by himself at the top of the arena with memories of past glory and concern for his future.

The Czech Republic, the team for which he was supposed to play at the Olympics, was facing bitter rival Russia. The end-to-end action was riveting. The crowd at Peaks Ice Arena roared.

Petr Svoboda took in the scene. He was glad he came.

"It was great," the Lightning defenseman said. "It's always great to see skilled players like you see down here. It was phenomenal. It's great competition."

Svoboda has not played since suffering a concussion Dec.14, 2000, against the Coyotes. Though he seems his old self, he said he still has occasional headaches, dizziness and nausea, especially after a hard workout.

Svoboda, whose two-year, $4.5-million contract ends after this season (though there is a team option for next), said he will decide in June if, at 36, he will retire or try to play again.

He knows the decision will be even more difficult than the realization in January he could not play in the Olympics.

Svoboda became a national hero at the 1998 Games in Nagano by scoring the winning goal in the Czech Republic's 1-0 victory over Russia in the gold-medal game.

He was not sure he wanted those memories rekindled. But when general manager Ivan Hlinka called and asked him to attend, Svoboda could not refuse.

"It was very difficult to watch at first," Svoboda said. "For the first six or seven months (after the injury), it wasn't too bad because I was in such bad shape. "But now you start to feel a little better, and in some ways, it's more difficult because you've got those feelings about something you've been doing for 30 years."

The Nagano Olympics were special for Svoboda, who wore his country's jersey for the first time since 1984, when, at 17, he defected from Czechoslovakia.

"After all those years in the NHL, I felt like a little kid again," he said. "There were butterflies. I grew up there.

"It's a situation where you take some pride."

Svoboda said he played the gold-medal game with a right elbow dislocated in the semifinals against Canada, taking a needle to numb the pain.

With 8:08 gone in the third period, Svoboda's slap shot from the point hit the top corner of the net. "I think the emotion didn't come until a few months later," Svoboda said. "There were still 12 minutes left, so there was no time to celebrate."

Svoboda, who played for the Flyers at the time, said when the rest of the team went to the Czech Republic on a plane provided by the government, he returned to the United States to get his elbow checked.

"There was an incredible celebration (in the Czech Republic)," he said. "It was just incredible to see what the game can do for people. They forgot their problems and celebrated for a week."

Despite his postconcussion syndrome, Svoboda was one of the first players named to the Czech Republic's 2002 Olympic team.

Hlinka said the choice was easy.

"We believed he would be ready to go," he said. "He's a really tough guy. He's a team guy, and he has great experience in the NHL. For sure we could use him on the team."

Instead, Svoboda watched.

"I like to watch the games alone," he said. "I just like to enjoy myself, as a fan, without a critical eye."

He even took the Czech Republic's 1-0 loss to Russia in stride.

"As long as you leave everything out there, then you can go home, in some ways, satisfied."

Just like Svoboda did when he flew back to Tampa.

"I miss the game so much because you love to play," he said. "But it's been a great experience to see it as a fan."

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