IN TERMS OF the Olympic experience, Chris Pronger has been there, done that, felt this, and felt that. He was part of the Canadian Olympic team that stumbled miserably in Japan in 1998, beat the United States on its own soil for the 2002 gold, disappointed with a seventh-place finish in the 2006 Turin Olympics.

Mike Richards? He was 13 when Pronger's first Olympic experience ended in medal-less embarrassment. "I just remember that image that you see all the time, of Wayne Gretzky sitting on the bench," said the Flyers captain. "You obviously don't want that."

Not in Nagano, not in Turin and most certainly not on your own soil in Vancouver. "Canadians are just a little bit wild about hockey," Richards said with that wry smile of his. "It's going to be special. It's going to be something that I think you're going to remember. But at the same time I think you have to remember what you're there for."

Separated by age, experience and roles, Richards and Pronger are united by that thought. They are there for country, for pride, for a gold medal that is at least as important to their nation and to many of their NHL colleagues - especially the European ones - as Lord Stanley himself.

That means, said Pronger, that you take any role you are given, happily, accept any team infrastructure. If then-Canadian GM Bob Clarke can name Eric Lindros as captain on a 1998 team that included Gretzky, Steve Yzerman and Ray Bourque, Pronger's status as assistant captain should be a shrug of the shoulder for Richards, the Flyers captain.

Anyone who knows Richards knows that it is. So, too, is a change in his role, from a player relied on to play power plays, penalty kills and supply big goals, to fourth-line checker in the Olympics - or even, perhaps, bench player.

"You're playing for your country," he said. "So there's a lot of pride. So I don't think it will be hard to do."

"He's played in world juniors and internationally for Canada," Pronger said. "That's expected of you. You're not always going to be a first-line guy. You might be a defenseman used to playing 30 minutes, and you're playing 20, or maybe 15. Maybe you're not even playing. You're sitting on the bench. It's not cut and dry. There's so many players to choose from. It's just an honor to be on the team. And you do what you can to help the team win."

Chemistry is everything, which both the American and Canadian teams have learned harshly since NHL players joined this tournament in Nagano. Back then Mark Messier and Scott Niedermayer were left off the team in favor of role players like Rob Zamuner. But then, as now, chemistry was served best when teams like the Czech Republic sprinkled in NHL stars like Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr to already-established rosters.

Now, as then, the Canadians will practice just a handful of times before the tournament begins.

"That's the trick of this tournament for us," Pronger said. "To gain that chemistry and that cohesiveness as quickly as we can . . . You've got to go through the growing pains as quickly and painlessly as possible. Sometimes the line combinations they have envisioned just don't click. And they've got to switch them up."

Mike Babcock will coach Canada this time. Steve Yzerman, an Olympic veteran, chose the roster. Niedermayer, Pronger's former teammate in Anaheim, is the team captain. He is 36. Pronger, at 35, is one assistant captain. Sidney Crosby, all of 22, is the other.

Richards turned 25 today. Fourteen players are making their Olympic debut. When the Canadians went punchless in Turin, 13 were first-timers.

And, yeah, it was an issue afterward.

There will be no acceptable excuses this time. The size of the rink will be NHL specifications rather than the more roomy international dimensions. Time changes, jet lag, cramped quarters and foreign food will not provide excuses for subpar efforts. With more of their players involved now in the NHL, their chief European rivals have chemistry issues to work out as well.

Above all, they will be home.

"There's added pressure," Richards said. "That's obvious. But it's going to be neat to have it in Canada."

After three Olympics, Pronger knows differently. Yeah, it would be really neat to win it in Canada. But anything less will be painful.

As painful as that image of Gretzky on the bench. *

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