tampabay.com

Lightning fans have lots to cheer

Seven Tampa Bay players are in the Olympics, including three for Canada and two for the Czechs.

By TOM JONES
Published February 10, 2006


TAMPA - Pavel Kubina cannot wait.

The Lightning defenseman loves living in the Olympic Village. He loves standing in a cafeteria line with bobsledders from Norway, speed skaters from South Korea and figure skaters from Russia. He loves cramming into dorm rooms with teammates, sharing humble living quarters.

To him, that is what the Olympics is all about.

And, oh yeah, he loves knowing he is playing in the best hockey tournament in the world.

While the Lightning's quest these days is to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, seven of them will put that dream aside for a couple of weeks. Instead, they will perform on the biggest sports stage in the world and go after another dream: Olympic gold.

Kubina and forward Vinny Prospal will play for the Czech Republic. John Grahame is one of three goalies for Team USA. Fredrik Modin will compete for Sweden. And the favorites from Canada will feature the Lightning's three biggest stars: forwards Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Marty St. Louis.

"It's a big thing, the biggest," Lecavalier said. "You're playing for your country. It's the Olympics. It's going to be a great experience. Right now, I have to focus on the Lightning. But when it's time to go, it's going to be great."

A few years ago, Lecavalier could not have dreamed of playing in the Olympics. No one on the sad-sack Lightning could. It was a lousy team with no stars and no recognition. But with success has come attention. And with attention has come the opportunity for the Lightning to be sprinkled throughout four teams with a legitimate chance to win it all.

Canada is the favorite. The Czechs have perhaps the best player (Jaromir Jagr) and goalie (Dominik Hasek) in the world and won the gold in 1998. Sweden, after a shocking upset to Belarus in 2002, is loaded and looking for redemption. And while the United States is young, it has enough stars to knock off any team.

The Canadians, however, are the team to beat. Already stacked with some of the world's greatest players such as Joe Sakic, Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla and goalies Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo, the Canadians have a new generation of stars led by Dany Heatley and the Lightning trio.

During the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, set up exactly like the Olympics with virtually the same rosters, Lecavalier led Canada to the championship and was named MVP.

"You can never predict the future, but I'm going to try to play the same way as I did (in the World Cup)," Lecavalier said. "It's such a short tournament, you have to be on a high the whole time. You have to be ready for every single game and every game is important. You have to do what you can every shift."

That includes running a Lightning teammate into the boards. With so many Lightning players participating, it's a good bet that Lecavalier and Modin will have a few run-ins. Same as St. Louis and Prospal, Richards and Kubina.

"Obviously you have a special relationship with all the guys so it is a little different," Modin said. "We are buddies and friends off the ice, but they want to beat me and I want to beat them when we're on the opposite side."

The best part of all, however, is the Lightning will be well-represented. And for some, such as Kubina, the Olympics are more than just hockey games.

"You stay three or four guys in one room. You're sharing one bathroom for like seven, eight guys, but it's great," Kubina said. "I really like it a lot. It's nothing fancy. It's like the old days."

The exception: The world will be watching.