If the Stanley Cup playoffs are a two-month long marathon, the Winter Olympics, for hockey players, is more like a 100-meter dash.
The Dallas Stars sent three players and a coach to Sochi, Russia, to make that intense, but short dash for gold — captain Jamie Benn for Canada, goalie Kari Lehtonen for Finland, rookie forward Valeri Nichushkin for Russia and coach Lindy Ruff for Canada.
To Ruff, the selections are telling of the work first-year general manager Jim Nill has done over the off-season and so far during the regular season.
If the season ended today, the Stars would be in the playoffs. Dallas is tied with Phoenix for the eighth and final playoff spot with 27-21-10 records, but the Stars own the tie-breaker over the Coyotes.
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“I really think the more you can send [to the Olympics], the better you feel about your team,” Ruff said. “It just means you’re getting recognized for having good players.”
This year’s 11-day Olympic tournament will be a first for both Lehtonen and Benn. Ruff said the experience they will gain far outweighs the rest they will lose while the NHL takes a break to watch its representatives compete for their home countries in Russia.
The men’s hockey tournament begins Wednesday and the gold-medal game is Sunday, Feb. 23.
“The Dallas Stars are extremely proud of Jamie, Kari and Valeri for being selected to participate at the Olympic Games,” Nill said in a statement when player selections were announced last month. “It is a tremendous honor to represent one’s country at the highest international stage and their experience at the Games will be invaluable for our own team as we approach the most competitive portion of our season.”
In the preliminaries, the USA is in Group A with Slovenia, Slovakia and Russia. Canada is in Group B with Austria, Finland and Norway. Group C has the Czech Republic, Latvia, Sweden and Switzerland.
The pressure is more on veterans Benn and Lehtonen, who will be expected to make contributions to their countries’ deep runs, than on 18-year-old rookie Nichushkin, who joins the tournament favorite.
However, the pressure to win, for Lehtonen, balances out with the chance to play with former comrades and teammates from past international teams.
“It’s playing with old friends,” the fifth-year Stars goalie said. “My age group was really good when we were young. Six or seven made it to the NHL and they’re always there and it’s nice to play with them. It’s just a different atmosphere when you’re playing for your country and nobody is getting paid. It’s just going there and working hard as a team because we love this game. It’s fun.”
Ruff said he’s not concerned about how his everyday goaltender will be used with several games in a short period of time.
“I want him to go over there and enjoy that experience, whatever that is, and come back ready to play,” Ruff said. “I want the guys to come back knowing I can be a better player from this experience and enjoy that. It could be once in a lifetime.”
Nichushkin, the Stars’ first-round pick, was given the nod to join the Russian national team, a spot he battled not only NHL stars for, but professionals from the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League.
“For Val, it’s like a free ticket,” Ruff said. “You’re 18 and they’re taking a little bit of a gamble and they’re hoping their gamble pays off. For him — it’s a great experience for him, but it’s an easier one.”
Nichushkin has been playing particularly well going into the Olympics. He has two goals and one assist in his past five games.
Benn has international experience, having represented Canada in the 2007 World Junior Championship and at the 2012 World Championship.
“It’s pretty special and it definitely means a lot to me,” Benn told the local media during a photo shoot displaying their Olympic uniforms. “I definitely want to represent Canada well and hopefully bring home a gold.”
All that being said, no one will experience pressure like Ruff, who will serve as an assistant coach for Team Canada for the second consecutive Olympics.
In 2010, Ruff helped coach Canada to a gold medal in an overtime final against Team USA that Ruff believes could not have been scripted better.
At least for Canadians.
“It’s a one-game showdown that you’re thinking every play could make a difference,” Ruff said. “It could be a screen shot, tip shot, shot off the skate. You don’t get a second chance in a one-game elimination. That feeling is incredible. It’s incredible for coaches and the players feel it too.”
The challenge for an Olympic coach is bringing together a group of players trained to compete against each other every day except the time spent together playing for their country.
That’s the great thing about hockey at this level, Ruff said. The love of sport and country overrides all.
“They have this special moment to do something with this group of guys and then after they leave, it’s game on again and we’ve seen that,” he said. “We’ve seen guys who have played together and they buck their heads and you think, ‘Didn’t they play tougher a week ago in the Olympics?’ ”