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Panthers forwards Tomas Kopecky and Aleksander Barkov excited to represent their countries in Olympics

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Panthers forward Tomas Kopecky still has disturbing flashbacks from the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, where his overachieving Slovakian team lost consecutive heartbreakers to Finland and then the eventual gold-medal winning Canadians in the semifinals.

That said, Kopecky, who turned 32 on Wednesday, couldn't be more excited for another crack at a medal when he leaves for Sochi, Russia, on Saturday evening for the upcoming Winter Olympics 12-team, hockey tournament (Feb. 12-23).

"I still kind of think about it," Kopecky said of the 5-3 loss to Finland in the bronze-medal game in which Slovakia held a 3-1 lead heading into the third period.

"We played such a great tournament and a great game until going into the third. I remember that game like it was yesterday. You realize how fortunate you are to play in a game like that. Losing is such a bummer but it makes you an even better hockey player to realize how tough it is to play the Olympics at the highest level.

"I still didn't get over that game."

Kopecky also winces when recalling fourth-place Slovakia's furious third-period rally that fell a goal short only because Canada's goalie Roberto Luongo robbed Pavol Demitra on the doorstep in the waning seconds to secure the 3-2 victory.

The sixth-seeded Slovaks, who stunned Russia and Sweden in Vancouver, are in the same Group A division with star-studded hosts/No. 1 Russia, No. 7 USA and No. 18 Slovenia.

This time if Kopecky gets another chance at second-ranked Finland, he'll have the added incentive of going against rookie teammate Aleksander Barkov, who at 18 is the youngest Finn on his squad and the only other Panther in the Olympics.

"I'm going to try to strip the puck away from him," laughed Kopecky when asked what he'd do if Barkov was on a potential, game-winning breakaway. "He's a great kid, a great competitor. I love those games when we play a team I played for or play a game where I know somebody from the other team.

"It's a little extra challenge, and who doesn't like those challenges?"

Kopecky will make the 12-hour flight to Sochi with Barkov at his side and will no doubt be a protective big brother to the shy teen, whose family, including his parents and brother, hail from Russia.

"I'll give him a little advice, but he's such a mature kid. He's unlike me when I was 18, so he doesn't need much," said Kopecky, who had one goal and a plus-1 rating in seven games in Vancouver.

Barkov helped guide Finland to a fourth-place finish in the 2013 U-20 World Junior Championship, also held in (Ufa) Russia.

"I'm excited 100 percent, it doesn't matter where it is (played)," said Barkov, who's 10th among rookies with 24 points and second in faceoffs won. "Maybe I'll play against (Kopecky). It would be very fun. I'd hit him with everything so he can't score.

Barkov is starstruck about meeting Finnish/Ducks superstar Teemu Selanne, who at 43 is more than twice his age and about to play in his sixth Olympics.

"He's a legend already," Barkov said. "I dreamed all my life about being in the NHL, being drafted and play for my national team. It's everything for me and now I'm there, so I'll enjoy every moment."

Most of the Panthers players will use the 20-day break to mend their aching bodies and get away from the sport. Scottie Upshall will go home to Los Angeles to work with his yoga instructor.

Sean Bergenheim, who turns 30 on Saturday and may have seen his last chance to be an Olympian for Finland go by, will focus on the continuing strengthening of his core.

Tomas Fleischmann, a 2010 Olympian who picked a bad time to be in the worst slump of his career, was snubbed by the third-round Czech Republic squad, but he could certainly use a mental break.

Whereas 20-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau knows there will be several more opportunities to make the ridiculously deep Canadian team, veteran defenseman Brian Campbell, 34, knows he's running out of years.

At 39, goalie Tim Thomas is still hoping for a last-minute call to wear USA across his jersey for a second time.

Kopecky has seen the dormitory-like rooms where millionaire NHLers will sleep in three twin beds in the Olympic Village. He's heard about the security concerns, but is confident that the thousands of Russian police officers mean business.

He's been part of two Stanley Cup championship teams with Detroit and Chicago, but says winning the gold would be the ultimate.

"There's nothing better for a hockey player knowing when the puck drops the whole country is watching," he said. "It drives you so hard. That's why those games are so high-tempo and aggression. Everybody wants to win.

"After we finished second in the 2012 World Championships, the homecoming from Helsinki, when I think about it, you have the goosebumps.

"It's almost the same winning the gold (than a Stanley Cup), maybe more. The whole country is watching, not just one city."

(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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