Petr Nedved, 20 years older, returns to the Olympics with a new country

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SOCHI – There are flecks of gray in a beard that could stand a trim but little else has changed. He still has that high-stepping stride, more of a joyful prance than an elegant glide. He still has the wicked wrist shot that picks corners with as much discernment as an oenophile chooses wine.

In a red Czech Republic sweater he dazzles and dallies during drills that are necessarily light because, with the NHL still winding down business, there are only six skaters and two goalies on the Bolshoy ice.

Petr Nedved, hockey’s Petr Pan, is 42. He is graceful and gracious proof of two things: that you can go home again, a notion many people grasp; and that you can compete for different countries in the Olympics, a concept that eludes most.

This is neither Nedved’s first rodeo nor his first Olympics. Two decades ago in an innocent pre-NHL Olympic world, he represented Canada at Lillehammer 1994, his first and, until now, his only Olympic experience. Five years earlier, at the conclusion of a Midget AAA tournament in Calgary, Nedved -- then a 17-year-old Czechoslovakian with no English, 20 bucks and precocious hockey skills -- had walked into an RCMP station and defected.

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The Iron Curtain has long since been dismantled -- now we have Vladimir Putin’s Ring of Steel around Sochi -- and Nedved, who retains Canadian citizenship, can play for his country of birth because of flexibility in IIHF rules. Nedved became eligible for the Czech Olympic team because he had played at least four consecutive years in his new, or in this case, old country. He has been back in the Czech Republic since 2007-08, the last six seasons with the Liberec White Tigers.

Passing on the Flames' Jiri Hudler (43 points, and a dandy distributor) and the Coyotes' Radim Vrbata (37 points), the national team plucked Nedved from the Czech Extraliga, one of those Jules Verne outfits (You know, 20,000 leagues under the NHL).

Even the left winger seems mildly surprised. Greeting a gaggle of North American reporters after practice, Nedved said, “I knew that you guys didn’t think I was [still] playing. Here I am.”

He has been playing well, averaging exactly a point a game in 44 Liberec matches. He also played creditably at the 2012 world championships -- three goals in nine games -- but his inclusion on the Olympic roster still seems optimistic for a team with six players older than 35, two of whom are in their forties.

The Czech's other literal graybeard is Jaromir Jagr, who has rebranded himself as hockey’s wise old man since returning from Europe in 2011. He and Nedved shared the same grand 1990 NHL draft -- Owen Nolan first, Nedved second, Jagr fifth, Keith Tkachuk 19th and Martin Brodeur 20th -- and the same team, the freewheeling Penguins, for two seasons.

Nedved may have been taken by the Canucks with the No. 2 pick, but no one was born to play in Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s more than he. Nedved arrived in 1995-96, after a grim lockout season with the Rangers, for whom he scored 11 goals and played a game that was all rounded corners. (During the playoffs, New York coach Colin Campbell moved Nedved’s locker between those of Mark Messier and Kevin Lowe in the hope that Nedved might acquire some grit by osmosis.) Unshackled, Nedved scored 45 goals for a Penguins team that played pinball hockey. Mario Lemieux, Jagr, Ron Francis and Nedved combined for 528 points.

Nedved set the bar so high for himself that season that he spent the rest of his NHL career doing the limbo under it. He would score 30 or more goals in a season only two more times. Nedved was a really nice player -- no one who plays almost 1,000 NHL games and scores 310 goals isn’t -- but he never seemed to fully meet expectations. He usually delivered just a little less than promised, the curse of many prodigies.

Nedved wound up playing for seven NHL franchises -- suiting up twice for both the Rangers and the Oilers -- in a career that was set adrift. After the 2004-05 lockout, Nedved played 93 NHL games. He scored nine goals.

Yet there are second acts in Czechs’ lives. Nedved is again a star, a big fish in a small pond who improbably has made his way to the Black Sea. Maybe the legs and hands could carry him another few years in his domestic league, but he doubts he will have the motivation after Sochi.

“I never thought after 20 years I’d go to the Olympics,” Nedved said. “This is kind of a nice way to end my career. It was a great honor to play for Canada. I enjoyed every moment playing for Canada. It was awesome. But now I’m playing for my own country, where I came from. At my age, in the last year of my career, there’s nothing better than that.”

The Czechs and Canadians are in different groups. They can meet only in an elimination game, a prospect that does not seem to particularly faze Nedved -- unlike in 1994 when Canada defeated the Czech Republic 3-2 in the Lillehammer quarterfinals.

“I remember the celebration in the dressing room,” Nedved said. “It was kind of a mixed feeling for me. Before the tournament I was hoping that [the teams wouldn’t play]. I guess the Hockey God wanted it to happen.”

Like his first Olympic team -- there were a lot more Brad Werenkas than Paul Kariyas on that Canadian roster -- the Czechs are not a gold-medal favorite. Of course, neither were the 1998 Czechs, sensationally backstopped in Nagano by Dominik Hasek.

“We have a good team,” Nedved said. “We didn’t come here to watch, either. This is a short tournament. A couple of games. If you time it right… “

Even if Nedved doesn’t dress for every game -- coach Alois Hadamczik has not outlined his role -- he can be a factor on the wider international ice surface, where skating is essential and where hitting is generally optional. Last month Jagr even said that Nedved “might be the best player on the team.”

That may be a stretch. Then again, so are two countries and two decades between Olympics.

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