SOCHI, Russia — Twenty years ago, in a stadium in Lillehammer, Norway, an Olympic team representing the newly independent country of Slovakia marched in the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics for the first time. Leading the way, holding a new flag, was a hockey player who made his living in North America, starring in the NHL.
Peter Stastny is now a member of European Parliament, his hockey days seemingly long behind him. But he is also here, taking in the sport that gave him standing in his own country and abroad. And as the Olympic tournament opened and Slovakia’s game against the United States approached, he was asked for whom he would be rooting.
“My dad’s answer was, ‘Well, we’re playing Slovakia,’ ” Paul Stastny said Thursday evening. “So he’s USA all the way.”
For most on the U.S. men’s hockey team, Thursday’s convincing 7-1 opening victory over Slovakia at Shayba Arena served as an opportunity to shake off the cobwebs from an 11-hour flight and to get more accustomed to new teammates as well as to the larger, more wide-open sheet of Olympic ice.
And the Americans did a good job of that. Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson scored the first goal of the tournament for Team USA, and after Slovakia briefly tied the score early in the second period, the United States responded with six goals in a 15-minute stretch.
“There’s always a lot of nerves and anxiousness to start these tournaments,” U.S. captain Zach Parise said. “For us to come out most importantly with a win but a pretty convincing win makes you feel good.”
The United States received solid goaltending from Jonathan Quick, who started over Ryan Miller — the MVP of the 2010 Olympic tournament, in which the U.S. team lost the gold medal match in overtime to Canada. Quick saved 22 of the 23 shots he faced against Slovakia, which watched both its goalies — first Jaroslav Halak, then Peter Budaj, both NHL players — succumb under the U.S. onslaught in the second.
Starting with Carlson’s slap shot past Halak with 5 minutes 33 seconds left in the first, six Americans scored: Ryan Kesler, Stastny, David Backes, Phil Kessel and finally Dustin Brown.
“It was pretty good for me personally and obviously for the team,” Carlson said. “. . . It was tough in certain situations throughout the game, but you just try to learn from them and get better. I know I felt way better in the third period than the first and second.”
The only U.S. player to score twice? That would be Stastny, who also happened to be the only American player who much cared that the opponent wore the dark blue of Slovakia. Both his parents and all of his grandparents are Slovakian. He speaks the language.
“It’s always special to play these guys,” Stastny said. “For me, playing against Canada or Russia is fun. Playing Slovakia is just as fun.”
There is, perhaps, no player in the Olympic tournament with as rich and diverse a hockey background as Stastny. Not only did his father play in the NHL — 15 years with three teams, scoring 450 goals and earning induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame — but so did his uncles, Anton and Marian. In 1980, Peter and Anton Stastny defected from Czechoslovakia to play for the Quebec Nordiques. Marian joined them later.
Paul Stastny was born in Quebec in 1985, so he could be here playing for Team Canada, which joins the homestanding Russians as the pre-tournament favorites. But when Paul Stastny was just 4, his father was traded to New Jersey. Peter Stastny never played another NHL game for a Canadian team, and Paul has dual citizenship.
Paul Stastny, now 28 and a member of the Colorado Avalanche, does not remember his father carrying that Slovakian flag in Norway all those years ago. His father, “humble” by Paul’s estimation, doesn’t talk about it much, either.
“If someone does ask him, I try to keep my ears up and listen to him,” Paul Stastny said. “I know how special that was for him. I think that’s one of his greatest achievements and one of the most humbling things he’s ever done.”
On Thursday afternoon, Peter Stastny was at Shayba Arena, watching his son play against his home country, for whom he once carried the flag. And as the Americans press forward — next to Saturday’s monumental clash with Russia — the great Slovak will be squarely in their corner, USA all the way.