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Proud Slovak Paul Stastny is Team USA's man of the world


Woodridge, Ill. -- Marian Hossa announced he is leaving Slovakia to sign a free-agent contract with the Czech Republic because he thinks the Czechs have a better chance of winning an Olympic gold medal in Vancouver next February.

Note: This is a joke. If you are reading about hockey in August, obviously you get it. Paul Stastny laughed, anyway.

"No comment," he said, "but good effort on that one."

Before we turn to the abridged story of the likely second-line Team USA center, who happened to be born in Canada and describes himself as "100 per cent Slovakian," consider the shifting alliances -- professional and even personal -- that suffuse the Olympics.

At the USA orientation camp, team general manager Brian Burke and his coach, Ron Wilson, who was born in Ontario but figures he has coached more international games for the Stars and Stripes than anyone, will try to forge a commonality of purpose and spirit among 34 American players that will carry into the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. The group includes Zach Parise, whose father J.P. played for Team Canada in the fabled 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union.

And next week in Calgary, key members of the brain trust of Team Canada, who spend the NHL season working for America's Hockey Team, the Red Wings -- including GM Steve Yzerman, who also holds U.S. citizenship, and his boss in Detroit, Team Canada assistant GM Ken Holland --will attempt to lay the seed for a home gold medal after the disappointment of Turin.

In 1998, Sweden turfed its star defenseman Ulf Samuelsson in the middle of the Olympic tournament when it was revealed that he also held an American passport. That seems like a million years ago. In an increasingly mobile world where the concept of home is not lifted from the Andrew Wyeth/Norman Rockwell playbook anymore, the once inviolable principles of patrimony have been blurred by pragmatism and, sometimes, choice.

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Like itinerant farm workers, a hockey player with international aspirations sometimes has to go where the work is.

This would hardly raise an eyebrow if Paul Stastny's father were not perhaps the most well known Slovak of them all: Peter Stastny. He was a Hall of Fame center who defected from what was then Czechoslovakia to play for the Quebec Nordiques, where he reunited with his brothers, Anton and Marian. Peter was an extraordinary player: offensively gifted but defensively responsible, tough as shoe leather but gentlemanly. He was the GM of the Slovak hockey team in the 2006 Olympics. He is a member of the European parliament. He sits on the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee. He speaks seven languages. He is hockey's Renaissance Man.

Peter's boy Paul playing for Slovakia would be like Kobe Bryant's kid playing hoops for Italy. Or President Obama's girls playing volleyball for Kenya. The father still finds it almost surreal -- his visit to the American Embassy in Moscow in 2007 with Paul and Team USA during the world championship left him shaking his head -- but Peter has grown resigned to Paul's hockey allegiance.

Although Paul is working on the papers now, he doesn't actually hold Slovakian citizenship at the moment. And with current rules requiring that players born outside the country play two years plus one day in a Slovak-sanctioned league, Paul wouldn't be eligible, anyway.

"(Goaltender Peter Budaj, Stastny's teammate with the Colorado Avalanche) gives me a hard time," Paul says. "He's pretty open about it, but he's a good guy." Stastny smiles, revealing a missing front tooth. "Once you're over 18 and you make that decision, you can't go back. I'm happy to be able to play for the U.S."

Years ago, the 23-year-old Stastny could have tried his luck with Canada, despite the deeper talent pool. He, like the other Stastny children including Yan, who scored three goals last season in 34 games with the St. Louis Blues and has twice represented the USA at the worlds, was born in Quebec. Paul lived there as a boy until the age of six and still understands although rarely speaks French. "(I just hang in background in the dressing, listening to the French-speaking guys.") But most of his childhood was spent in St. Louis, where he has been based almost 15 years. He still spends summers there with his family. Peter checks in for at least six weeks.

"Playing for the USA comes naturally," said Paul, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen. "When you're younger, you just want to play internationally. You get a chance to play for the country you're raised in, that's a source of pride. Obviously my home is always going to be in the United States. But we speak Slovakian at home. That's where all my blood is. All the family bloodlines go through Slovakia."

The entire Stastny family returned to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, last month, the first time in 12 years they all gone back together. If Paul's language skills had deteriorated, they were revived by the visit although he won't get much chance to use them around Team USA.

Many of the players in camp here are bilingual, but the two languages they speak are English and blue.