With the Olympic Games taking place in Vancouver, BC, much of the attention heading into the event is on Team Canada. Expectations are high for the host country to garner gold. Yet, Sweden was the 2006 gold medal-winner, and the announcement of its 2010 team is a nod to that championship effort.
As such, 13 members will participate this time around. Defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings leads a group that also includes goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, Peter Forsberg -- he of the on-going foot ailments -- and Freddy Modin, who has missed 31 games with the Blue Jackets due to a knee injury this season. Daniel Alfredsson of the Senators made the roster, despite recently going on the IR with a separated shoulder. Meanwhile, Johan Franzen's knee injury that has kept him out of Detroit's lineup since the first week of the season also kept him off Team Sweden's roster.
In addition to the health uncertainties of that veteran core, the Swedes enter these Games with the unknown of inserting five first time Olympians on the blueline. Not that all will play. Lidstrom, Red Wings teammate Niklas Kronwall, and Mattias Ohlund of the Lightning will anchor the defense. Lidstrom and Ohlund, along with Forsberg and Alfredsson, are making their fourth Olympic appearances and will certainly log plenty of ice time with so many new faces in their midst.
Of the newcomers, Toby Enstrom has the best chance to come out of the Games with much more notoriety than he has entering them. Even with the fourth-most assists in the NHL to date for all defenseman, and his being the fifth-leading scorer from the blueline, Enstrom's skill game is still mostly a secret. The essence is skating, characterized by an uncanny elusiveness that serves the 5-10, 180-pound rearguard extremely well as he plays 22:30 a night for the Thrashers, paired mostly with veteran Pavel Kubina.
Enstrom's efficiency sneaks up on you. Selected in the eighth round of the 2003 NHL draft (239th overall), his diminutive dimensions surely played a role in his low draft status. But he has always been the "little guy" who continued to excel against bigger and older competition. To compensate, Enstrom's father kept adding an inch or two to his son's stick length each season to provide him with the necessary reach to play as an "undersized" defenseman. The result was an extraordinarily long stick for a player of Enstrom's height. He uniquely handles it by adjusting the position of his top hand -- choking up like a batter in baseball -- depending on the situation.
Enstrom is understandably excited to be going to Vancouver. "It is a great opportunity to represent my country," he says. "I haven't been in a position many times to do so. Yes, I was a little surprised at being selected. You never know how the coaches want to set up the team, but I did know they were watching."
"Lots of messages from family and friends. Everyone is excited. I spoke to (Nik) Havelid too. He called (to say congratulations)."
Which brings the four-year cycle of the Olympics full circle. I remember running into Nik Havelid just outside the Olympic village in Turin in '06. He was a part of Sweden's gold medal team, but is not on the 2010 edition. I stopped and chatted with him and Modin as they headed over to watch some speedskating. On this particular off day, they were Olympians and fans all at once, both embracing and symbolizing what makes the Games special.
This time, the Games take on special meaning for a different reason. Enstrom was Havelid's protégé for the better part of two seasons in Atlanta, the veteran paired with the youngster almost every game. Havelid's influence extended further than the ice, as Enstrom learned what it takes to be a professional in all facets of NHL life. With that bond established, Havelid will be watching Enstrom closely and taking note of his young friend's game.
My guess is so, too, will countless new fans from all over the globe.