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декабря 1997 года.
Ozolinsh to miss the Olympics
By Terry Frei
Dec. 21 - The best player in the National Hockey League who isn't going to the Olympics? Cases can be made for the Canadian near-misses, including Colorado's Claude Le mieux, Vancouver's Mark Messier, Montreal's Mark Recchi or Carolina's Sean Burke.
But then you look at last season's NHL all-star first and second teams - allegedly the league's elite dozen - and notice that only two of the men aren't headed for Nagano, Japan.
One is the retired Mario Le mieux. The other is Colorado defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh.
Ozolinsh is from Latvia, and his homeland - along with its Baltic neighbors, Lithuania and Estonia - regained its national independence early in the decade. The three nations had been involuntarily absorbed into the USSR during World War II and, except for three years of German occupation, were a part of the the Soviet Union until the world-turning events of the early 1990s.
We have witnessed stirring Baltic nation Olympic moments in the wake of the shedding of the Soviet mantle, such as when basketball players Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis - who reluctantly were on the USSR's 1988 gold medalists - proudly led Lithuania in the '92 and '96 Games.
Ozolinsh hoped to have a similar opportunity, but he was on the Latvian team that lost 4-1 to Belarus, another former Soviet republic, in the qualifying tournament in Ozolinsh's hometown of Riga last August. Latvia beat Lithuania 26-0 and Estonia 16-1 before meeting Belarus. By winning, Belarus made the eight-team preliminary round, which begins Feb. 7 in Nagano.
Belarus' best player is Vladimir Tsyplakov, the Los Angeles Kings winger who will face Ozolinsh and the Avs Tuesday night at McNichols Sports Arena. So even the unheralded Tsyplakov is Olympics-bound, while Ozolinsh is not.
"When we played in that tournament, it didn't seem like such a big deal,'' Ozolinsh said. "Then when we lost, and I figured out that the next Olympics I'd have a chance to go to would be when I was almost 30, it sucked, basically.
"We should have won that game. The people were pumped and it was a sellout. Before the game, at every international tournament, the Latvian national team had beaten Belarus. Every important game we played against them, we beat them. So it was a big disappointment. The media was on us, and they were trying to find the reason we lost.''
There might have been other ways to Ozolinsh to angle a trip to Nagano. For example, when the Penguins and Avalanche met Friday in Denver, one of the 17 players in the game who was ticketed for Olympic duty was Pittsburgh defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, a native Lithuanian.
Although Kasparaitis says his mother is Russian, he's not particularly popular at home for joining the Russians for the Winter Games. Neither Sabonis nor Marciulionis would have dreamed of playing for Russia, for example. And Ozolinsh has been openly disdainful of Kasparaitis' decision.
So while nine of his teammates are playing in Nagano, Ozolinsh will be back in Colorado. "If I have nothing to do at all,'' he said, "I might watch a game. I'll definitely watch the finals.''
Because of the Olympic break, the Avs won't play between a Feb. 7 home against Philadelphia and a Feb. 25 game at Phoenix. Ozolinsh can use the time off, since he's been banged up much of the regular season and even underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, but the Avs will have a minicamp during the final week of the break. "That will be a pretty rough time there,'' Ozolinsh said with a laugh. "We'll only have about 10 players!''
The rest will be in Japan, getting the Olympic experience Ozolinsh -
and his nation - just missed out on.