TAMPA — With all the luxuries afforded professional athletes, the wealth acquired and the lifestyle that comes along with it, one stage offers a humble experience — the Olympics.
From wide-eyed 20-somethings to those who have experienced the biggest stage of international athletic competition multiple times, being a part of the Olympics, to be called an Olympic athlete holds special meaning.
“It’s a huge honor, it’s the highest that you can have to represent your country,’’ said Lightning defenseman Sami Salo, who will participate in his fourth Olympics with Finland, which opens play Thursday against Austria.
“It’s very exciting, not just to be playing in the Olympics but to see the other athletes in the Village and to talk with them about their experiences and the sports that they are participating.’’
The Lightning organization has six players competing in Sochi: Salo, forward Marty St. Louis for Canada, forward Ondrej Palat and defenseman Radko Gudas for the Czech Republic, forward Richard Panik for Slovakia and goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis for Latvia.
Two others, forwards Steven Stamkos (Canada) and Valtteri Filppula (Finland) were named to their national teams, but could not play because of injury.
Palat and Gudas, a pair of Lightning rookies, were introduced to the Olympics when both were elementary-school age watching the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Their native Czech Republic defeated Russia to win the gold medal, sparking aspirations of being Olympians.
Both will do so in Sochi as members of the Czech Republic team, which opens play Wednesday against Sweden.
“It’s always been my dream to represent my country in the Olympics in hockey ever since 1998 when they won the gold medal,’’ said Palat, who ranks third in NHL rookie scoring with 34 points for Tampa Bay this season. “I love to watch the Olympics. I watch it all, the Summer Games, so it’s going to be awesome to be there and be a part of it.’’
For Gudas, the Olympic experience goes a little bit deeper than watching the 1998 Czech Republic team. His father, Leo, won a bronze medal with the Czech Republic during the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France.
“When I was chosen, my dad told me, ‘You are going to enjoy it, this is unbelievable,’” Gudas said. “And he’s going to be (in Sochi) to support me.”
Gudas also is a fan of the Olympics, especially the Summer Games, and played in Everett, Washington, not far from the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Now, being a part of the experience is rewarding.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s the dream of dreams,’’ Gudas said. “I wanted to play in the NHL, that was my dream. But playing for the Olympics, that’s a whole different level. To play for my country, it’s definitely an achievement and I hope it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime chance.’’
Lightning forward Ryan Malone won a silver medal with Team USA at the 2010 games in Vancouver, but was not chosen to represent his country this time around.
Growing up in Pittsburgh, where his father, Greg, was part of the Penguins organization, Malone had the chance to know Herb Brooks, the legendary coach of the 1980 USA squad famous for its Miracle on Ice. When Malone was selected for the 2010 team, he knew how special it was to be called an Olympian.
“I would have never dreamt of that situation, so to have the opportunity to represent your country, play the game at the highest level, I appreciated every moment,’’ Malone said. “I soaked it all in and it was obviously one of the best memories of my career.’’