Peter Bondra wants to help his country qualify for the Salt Lake Olympic hockey tournament next February, but he's not about to walk out on the Washington Capitals to make that happen.
Speculation has it that several Slovak players will leave their National Hockey League teams, without permission if necessary, to help their national team advance to the main Olympic tournament for games against Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and the United States.
Slovakia must participate in the Olympic qualifying tournament, set for Salt Lake, one week before the main tournament. The problem is that the NHL will begin its Olympic break only one day before the main tournament begins, thereby preventing Slovak stars such as Bondra and Ziggy Palffy of the Los Angeles Kings from playing in the qualifying round.
Bondra, whose Capitals were in Calgary last night for a game against the Flames, has been searching for ways to assist the Slovak team. Bolting from the Caps before the NHL's Olympic break is not one of them.
"I can't leave the team," Bondra said, referring to the Caps. "I couldn't tell that to George [McPhee, Washington's general manager] It's tough. I'm obligated to my contract. There are a lot of tough decisions to make, but I have to also think of my teammates here."
Bondra recently agreed to a two-year contract extension with the Caps that could see the club extend the deal another two years. Rather than defy the people putting money in his wallet, Bondra is seeking diplomatic solutions and has talked to Jan Filc, the head coach of the Slovak national team.
Bondra said that teammate Richard Zednik and Marian Hossa of the Ottawa Senators have also talked to Filc. "We're talking about maybe the schedule will let us go a day early since the Olympics are in North America," Bondra said. "It's possible the schedule will help, because not every [NHL]team may play on the last day [before the Olympic tournament starts] Maybe L.A. can send its three players. We have to see."
At the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the NHL did not allow an early release for players from Slovakia, Germany, France and Kazakhstan. Instead, players rushed overseas as quickly as they could for the qualifying round. Often they arrived too late to be of any good. Bondra appeared in two games and scored once as Slovakia failed to advance.
"I know what happened in Nagano," said Flames forward Ronald Petrovicky, whose older brother Robert was allowed to leave his club in the American Hockey League to play for Slovakia. "Guys were coming in to play in the pre-Olympic games and they never got to play. Their countries didn't qualify. Ziggy Palffy sat in the stands the last game and didn't play because Slovakia was already eliminated."
Petrovicky, who has also spoken to his country's national team coach, was glad to hear that Bondra was doing what he could to help the Slovak cause, but agreed the possibilities were limited.
"Everybody would love to represent their country, but we are employed [by NHL teams]until the break is on," he said. "We can't do anything about it. The NHL has to say, 'Yes, you can play in the tournament.' Or the owners and GMs. Somebody has to sit down and decide."
For Bondra, the Olympics have always been a dream. Growing up in Ukraine, he dreamed of playing in the Olympics more than playing in the NHL. Six years ago, he became a Slovak citizen and was thrilled to represent his new homeland in Nagano.
"Every time you get the chance, you want to compete in the Olympics," he said. "If we put our best team together, we have a lot of talented players. But the schedule is so tight. I don't think there's room for any adjustments. To be honest, it will be tough to change anything."
Here are 19 National Hockey League players who could play for Slovakia's 2002 Olympic team: D Zdeno Chara (NYI) D Branislav Mezei (NYI) D Lubomir Sekeras (MIN) D Radoslav Suchy (PHX) D Robert Svehla (FLA) D Lubomir Visnovsky (LA) F Lubos Bartecko (STL) F Peter Bondra (WSH) F Pavol Demitra (STL) F Marian Gaborik (MIN) F Michal Handzus (STL) F Marcel Hossa (MTL) F Marian Hossa (OTT) F Ladislav Nagy (STL) F Zigmund Palffy (LA) F Robert Petrovicky (CGY) F Miroslav Satan (BUF) F Josef Stumpel (LA) F Richard Zednik (WSH)