Montreal Canadiens Tomas Plekanec (14) has a word with line-mate Brian Gionta during game against the Florida Panthers in National Hockey League action in Montreal Friday January 6, 2014. “It’s an honour to be named captain, but there’s nothing big to it,” Plekanec said of being given the C for the Czech team in Sochi. “It’s just a letter on a jersey.”
Photograph by: John Mahoney, THE GAZETTE
For a couple of weeks next month, a great many Canadiens fans are going to intensely dislike — is detest too strong a word? — a cornerstone player of their favourite NHL club.
So, Tomas Plekanec, how will that feel?
“I’ll take it for that time,” he said with a grin after Monday night’s 2-1 Bell Centre victory over the Florida Panthers. “I’ll take it for a couple of weeks.”
There was no surprise Monday mid-afternoon when Plekanec was named to the Czech Republic’s team to the Sochi Olympic Games.
What came as a surprise to many, if only a very mild one to the player himself, was that on a team of many highly decorated, forever stars on the NHL and global stage, including Patrik Elias and Jaromir Jagr, it was Plekanec who was named captain of the Czech squad for his second Games.
Elias was the country’s captain at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Jagr an alternate.
“I was a little surprised,” Plekanec said of being given the C, “and I don’t know if surprised is the right word. It’s an honour to be named captain, but there’s nothing big to it. It’s just a letter on a jersey. There’s going to be a lot of experienced guys on our team.”
Czech head coach Alois Hadamczik had no doubt that Plekanec would be his captain, a role the centreman had played representing the nation at an IIHF world championship a couple of years ago.
“It was not hard to choose Plekanec as a captain,” Hadamczik told Montreal-based Nova-TV reporter Zdenek Matejovsky. “I’ve known him from the beginning on the national team. He is a dedicated and complete player.”
The Canadiens have long known that about the industrious, multi-talented forward whom they drafted 71st overall in 2001, the Habs’ fourth choice coming in the third round.
On Monday, Plekanec assisted on captain Brian Gionta’s game-winning goal 15:46 into the second period and played his usual strong two-way game, earning the night’s first star. If there’s any justice in the NHL, the native of Kladno will earn strong consideration this season for the Frank Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward.
Plekanec is the Canadiens’ leading point-scorer among forwards through 44 games, his 27 points on 13 goals and 14 assists leading by one the sum for Pacioretty (19 goals, seven assists). Defenceman P.K. Subban leads all Habs with seven goals and 26 assists.
The announcement of Plekanec’s Olympic nomination came a few hours after the similarly unshocking news that defenceman Raphael Diaz would be on Switzerland’s blue line in Sochi.
On New Year’s Day, forward Max Pacioretty was named to Team USA, and I’ll go out on a limb to declare that by Tuesday mid-day, four more Canadiens, but likely five, will be given their Sochi tickets: goalie Carey Price and rearguard Subban for Canada; defenceman Andrei Markov for Russia, and probably Alexei Emelin; and netminder Peter Budaj for Slovakia.
Monday night, as reporters milled about the dressing room post-game awaiting Plekanec’s arrival — the media had spoken to Diaz at morning skate in Brossard — Markov sat nearby quietly peeling off his equipment, getting a great kick out of the chaos.
“So the Canadian Olympic announcement tomorrow,” he said to me, the grin starting to spread. “Will that be a big deal?”
Probably only big enough to freeze the country in its tracks, I replied, then throw it into a month of hand-wringing and nail-biting over who was chosen and mostly who wasn’t.
“So, like always then,” Markov said.
Plekanec has played 72 international games for the Czech Republic during his career, scoring 19 goals and assisting on 28 more.
His national-team career began with a half-dozen games at the 2000 under-18 world championship, following his participation in three international minor-hockey tournaments. Twice he played in the world juniors, in 2001 and ’02, winning a gold medal in his first try.
He’s since suited up in seven world championships, winning a silver and two bronze while scoring 14 goals and assisting on 22 more in those 47 games.
Plekanec had two goals and an assist in five games at the Vancouver Olympics, the Czechs bounced in the quarterfinals by Finland, the eventual bronze medalist.
The very sudden-death nature of the five-ring circus was a revelation to him, as it is to most first-time Olympians, club players thrown together with little time to develop systems or develop chemistry and zero margin for error come the medal round.
“The one lesson I learned was the importance of five players being on the same page, playing together as a unit,” Plekanec said upon rejoining the Canadiens after his Vancouver experience.
It’s not as though his nomination to the Sochi team came at the last minute. Plekanec said team management has been speaking with core players since last summer about the structure of the squad, and he was told “in the past few weeks” that he’d be on the team, something that was confirmed a couple of days ago.
Eyebrows were raised with the exclusions of two productive players in Calgary’s Jiri Hudler and Phoenix’s Radim Vrbata. Peter Nedved, 42, who skates for White Tigers Liberec in the Czech Extraliga, returns to the Olympic arena, a silver medalist for Canada at Lillehammer in 1994.
Plekanec welcomes playing high-stress hockey for his country with the NHL stretch run on the horizon, aware that others will be resting during the Olympic period.
“The career of a hockey player is not long,” said the 31-year-old veteran of 10 NHL seasons. “You want to play as much as possible. You can rest after your career.”
Plekanec expects the trash-talking in the Canadiens quarters to begin soon, saying “there’ll be some chirping and maybe some side bets. We’ll see how it turns out.”
The loudest noise, he expects, will come from dressing-room neighbour Pacioretty.
“He likes to talk, he’s very confident,” Plekanec said, laughing. “I’ll let him talk – but the game is played on the ice.”
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