by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Paul Martin’s Olympic hockey experience was cut short by a hand injury last week, but otherwise it was an adventure for the Elk River native, along with eight relatives and a buddy who also made the trip to Sochi, Russia.
“Yes, I had a blast. It was very exciting to be there, after missing the last two Olympics,” said Martin, who was an alternate for the 2006 Games but didn’t suit up and was picked for the 2012 Games but missed them with an injury. “But it would have been nice to play against Canada and the medal game.”
The 31-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman played in four games, helping Team USA defeat Slovakia 7-1, Russia 3-2, Slovenia 5-2, and Czech Republic 5-2.
However, on the first shift against the Czechs, he was crunched into the boards and suffered what turned out to be a broken ring finger of his right hand.
“During a time-out,” said his father, Dale, “I saw Paul take off his glove and shake his hand, and I thought, ‘uh-oh,’ because he doesn’t usually do anything like that.”
Martin played the rest of that game anyway.
“Late in the game, right in front of us,” Dale said, “Paul cranked up for a big slap shot that just missed. He told me afterward that he told himself, ‘OK, this is going to hurt.’”
Martin, who will miss four to six weeks, was on the sidelines when the USA lost the premier matchup of the Olympics to Canada 1-0 in the semifinals, and again when they came out flat and lost to Finland 5-0 in the bronze medal game.
“Winning the four games I played, that was nice,” Martin said, “but it was tough to have to watch (after that). You don’t feel as much a part of it and you can’t contribute anything.”
The outcome was hard to take.
“We were disappointed in ourselves,” Martin said, “because we felt we had a great team that could win the gold medal.”
Four Penguins played in the Olympics, as Martin and his defensive partner Brooks Orpik skated together with Team USA while Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz played for victorious team Canada. The Penguins coach, Dan Brylsma, coached the Americans.
Asked if he could be happy for Crosby and Kunitz, he responded, “You realize how hard it is, and how special it is, to win a medal, when you see it up close and not just on TV. So we can be happy for them. But now we have to move on to the rest of the (NHL) season.”
Martin missed over a month earlier this year with a broken tibia but was back in time for the Olympics, only to get hurt again. It was a broken arm that kept him out of the 2010 Olympics.
“Olympic years are hard on me, it seems,” Martin mused.
His dad said, “I told him, maybe you should drink more milk. Maybe that would help.”
The Martin delegation included parents Dale and Bev Martin, sister Leah Martin, uncles Barry Hohlen and Greg Hohlen, and aunts Lynette Tewalt and Jill Pouliot, along with Jon Waibel, Paul’s former Gopher teammate.
Paul accompanied the group up the mountain to watch one of the skiing events and to cheer for Team USA women’s hockey in two games, including their excruciating 3-2 loss to Canada in the finals after leading 2-0.
Dale Martin said the group wanted to see curling, but Team USA usually played in the same session as Russia, and there weren’t any tickets available. Dale, Paul and the others enjoyed getting to know John Shuster, of Chisholm, a skip on Team USA.
Paul Martin said it was fun to see fellow athletes like the figure skaters and Lolo Jones (track star who took up bobsledding). He noticed that other athletes, whose sports get the spotlight only in Olympic years, seemed to enjoy talking to the NHL players who are followed every year.
Dale Martin said the whole trip was “quite an adventure and a lot safer than we thought. … I was the one with the most trepidation and fear about all the (terrorists) alerts. The others said, ‘Ah, it’ll be fun to go.’”
The Russians held down the fort very well, with no incidents.
“There was a lot of security everywhere,” he said.
Also a lot of dogs. One of the big stories in the pre-Olympic buildup was the large numbers of stray dogs in Sochi and the drastic measures the local officials were taking to try thin out their ranks.
“There were dogs everywhere, on the street and outside the Village and a lot of them on the Boardwalk on the Black Sea,” said Dale Martin, adding that the animals were slim but didn’t appear to be starving.
“The surprising thing, their temperament was just like a person. They would not approach you unless you called them. They would just be napping or minding their own business.”
At one point, he said, when Barry Hohlen accidentally stepped on a dog’s tail, the pooch “just yelped a little, but didn’t snarl or anything, and walked away.”
David Backes, a St. Louis Blues hockey player from Spring Lake Park, and his wife adopted two of the stray dogs, filling out paperwork to do so, said Dale.
“That was a big story over there,” he said.
The Martin delegation and other players’ families traveled with the NHL Players Association group, which meant lots of perks, including charter planes and buses, sailing through customs and having luggage brought to their hotels. That’s one of the perks about having an Olympian in the family.