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Lightning Olympians A Blend Of Experienced And New Talent

Monday, 02.10.2014 / 9:49 PM / Features
By Missy Zielinski  - Lightning Beat Reporter
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Lightning Olympians A Blend Of Experienced And New Talent
The seven Lightning Olympians range from 21 to 39 years old, and experience levels as they head to Sochi for the Winter Olympic Games

On the official roster deadline day for Olympic teams on January 7, 2014, a total of seven different players from the Tampa Bay Lightning organization were named to their respective country's team for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The list included: defenseman Radko Guadas (CZE), forward Ondrej Palat (CZE), goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis (LAT), forward Richard Panik (SVK), forward Valtteri Filppula and defenseman Sami Salo (FIN) and forward Steven Stamkos (CAN), which set a franchise record for number of players to represent the organization in the games.

While in the week leading up to the competition Stamkos was not cleared to play, his absence left one spot open on Team Canada's roster which went to fellow teammate and Lightning captain Martin St. Louis. Filppula also succumbed to injury four days before he was set to leave and had to miss the Winter Games.

What makes this year's Olympians from the Bolts unique is their ages, which range from 21 to 39 years old, and experience levels of those that made a roster.

SALO, ST. LOUIS VYING FOR GOLD

Sami Salo and Martin St. Louis will both be heading to Sochi with something to prove, as each has appeared on an Olympic roster before.

Salo has been a part of the past three Olympic teams (2002, 2006, 2010) for Team Finland and said coming from a small country has its advantages.

"All the teams I've been a part of, the chemistry has worked from the first day on," Salo said. "We know the system – it's similar to the World Juniors – you've grown up with it, so it's fairly easy for new players to pick up. That's been the key for us."

Over the years, Salo has been able to witness alpine skiing, figuring skating and curling events, saying that he is not just excited to play, but to see all the other athletes and talk with them about their experiences while staying in the Olympic village.

The Vantaa, Finland native has won a Bronze (2010) and a Silver (2006), but would like to add a Gold Medal to his collection in 2014.

"That's the one that shines brightest," Salo said.

"To think that Sami's done this at an extremely high level and not been really passed by anybody is impressive," head coach Jon Cooper said. "He's still an effective player in the NHL and in international competition. It's remarkable, especially after seeing how hard and demanding it is to play in this league."

After a disappointing finish for Martin St. Louis and Team Canada in 2006, St. Louis said he wants to use the experience he's gained over the last seven-plus years this time around.

"My role is to be one of 14 forwards that helps push this team in the right direction," St. Louis.

St. Louis said he was "awe struck" in 2006 and feels like he ready in 2014.

"I was a late bloomer coming into this league," St. Louis said. "I wasn't as experienced as I am today. I'm better prepared for the second opportunity and I'm looking forward to it."

Both Salo and St. Louis will play their first game on Thursday. Finland takes on Austria, while Canada slated to face Norway.

NEWCOMERS TO GAIN EXPERIENCE

The day the roster was set to be announced Gudas and Palat had just had a good morning skate in Winnipeg and were feeling upbeat.

"We were playing soccer and Gudas kept checking his phone," Palat said. "He was nervous and when he found out he ran to me and we hugged. It was fun."

With so much to be excited about both agreed that they were most looking forward to being able to play next to one another during the tournament.

"I can't believe I'm going with Ondrej too," Gudas said. "We have pretty much been playing together our whole pro career, so it's unbelievable to go together and to follow each other's paths with the same accomplishments and routes in our career."

The two also said to be playing next to legends like Jaromir Jagr, who was one of their icons growing up, is a dream come true. It is also a valuable lesson they can bring back to the Bolts.

"These guys are all brand new and they get to walk into a room with Hall of Famers and hear their stories, prepare situations they went in to and I hope our guys come back taking that from them," Cooper said. "I want them to go and consume as much as they can from these guys who have been Hall of Famers in this league."

The Czech Republic's first game is Wednesday versus Sweden. Palat said he will be bringing his girlfriend along, while Gudas said his father will be accompanying him the whole time and that his mom and girlfriend will probably join him as well.

Climbing the Ladder

Drafted less than a year ago by the Lightning, netminder Gudlevskis has steadily made his mark on the organization.

Gudlevskis first created some buzz while starting the season with the Bolts' ECHL affiliate, the Florida Everblades. In 11 games the 21-year-old netminder posted a 1.83 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage, leading to his recall to the American Hockey League's Syracuse Crunch. He then suited up and backed-up Ben Bishop on February 8, finding himself a part of an ECHL, AHL, NHL and Olympic roster in just his first professional season.

Gudlevskis said it was going to be "a good challenge" playing at such a high level of hockey in the Olympics with Team Latvia.