Blues' Halak ready for crucial role with Slovakia at Olympics

News-DemocratFebruary 12, 2014 

In 2010, goaltender Jaroslav Halak helped backstop the surprising Slovakian national team to a fourth-place finish at the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

It was the high-water mark in Olympic hockey for Slovakia, a small European country that has produced some high-end NHL talent.

Halak joined the Blues since that memorable 2010 Olympic run that included stunning victories over Russia and Sweden before losing to Finland in the bronze medal game.

"For some people it happens only once in a lifetime and I am fortunate enough to go to the second one," said the 28-year-old Halak, who grew up in Bratislava, the large capital city of Slovakia on the banks of the Danube River. "It is special... it's always an honor to play for your country."

Halak was 3-3 at the 2010 Olympics with a 2.41 goals-against average. His performance in net will likely determine if the underdog Slovakians can challenge for their first Olympic hockey medal.

A hot goaltender can carry a team in a short tournament like this and Halak would love to be that guy.

Slovakia opens its Olympic hockey preliminary round with a 6:30 a.m. game Thursday against Team USA (TV: NBC Sports Network), giving Halak to become quickly reacquainted with Blues teammates David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk.

"With nine of us going there, I'm playing with a lot of guys that will be on opposite teams when we get there," Backes said. "We start off against Slovakia, so we'll get to see Jaro right away."

Halak's counterpart in net for Team USA is Blues playoff killer Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings. Quick got the surprise start instead of Buffalo's Ryan Miller.

This is the seventh time Halak has played for the Slovakian national team and second Olympics. He also played in three world championships and two world junior championships.

Where does the sport of hockey rank in Slovakia?

"I think it's the biggest sport, but we have less and less young players coming up," said Halak, whose new Olympic mask features a large Slovakian flag design. "Our development system for the younger hockey players is not really that great. We've been fortunate enough to have really good hockey players even though we are such a small country."

There are currently 15 NHL players from Slovakia, including Olympic team star forward Marian Hossa and star defenseman Zdeno Chara.

Former Blues star Pavol Demitra racked up three goals and 10 points at the 2010 Olympics. Demitra was killed in a 2011 plane crash in Russia.

Former Blues center Michal Handzus is one of the Slovakian team's top forwards, but two key NHL talents -- forward Marian Gaborik and defenseman Lubomir Visnofsky -- are missing the Olympics because of injuries.

Halak was exposed to several sports as a youngster, but the allure of goaltending equipment steered him toward hockey.

"I had a goalie mask and a stick," he said. "I was always brought up to be a goalie ever since I was 3 years old. I always wanted to play goalie. I played soccer with my friends, but I wasn't serious like hockey was for me.

"I always watched hockey and tried to see what the goalies would do, that was kind of cool for me."

That being said, he is the only hockey player in his extended family.

"I was the only one," he said. "The odd one."

Hitchcock ready for his role

An assistant coach and part of the braintrust for Team Canada, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said he spent very little time even thinking about the Olympics before this week.

"I haven't spent 30 seconds looking at anything other than my team here in St. Louis," he said before leaving for Sochi, Russia. "We told management that and we told each other that. It's too important, what's going on here right now, to spend one second of time on (the Olympics before it starts).

"Everybody agreed to it. Once the team was picked we've had one conversation and it was about accreditation and travel. There was not one talk about opponent, tactics, practices nothing."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or follow him on Twitter: @NormSanders

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