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Canada Better Not LoseAfter a 50-year gold medal drought in hockey, the nationthat invented the sport is obsessed with winning thisNHL-star-studded battle

Feb. 04, 2002
Feb. 04, 2002

Table of Contents
Feb. 4, 2002

Winter Olympic Preview

Canada Better Not LoseAfter a 50-year gold medal drought in hockey, the nationthat invented the sport is obsessed with winning thisNHL-star-studded battle

There are 3.8 million square miles, a treasure trove of natural
wonders, forbidding wilderness and vibrant, cosmopolitan cities,
but the central geographical truth of Canada is this: Everyone
lives two doors down from someone connected to hockey. Consider
Edmonton Oilers left wing Ryan Smyth, a first-time Olympian who
was raised in the Rocky Mountain resort town of Banff, Alberta,
where the January temperature and the degree of separation from
the game are often the same--one. Smyth grew up across town from
Oilers equipment manager Barrie Stafford, Smyth's first link to
the NHL. His acquaintance with Stafford led, in the serpentine
way all good stories do, to Smyth's being run over in a parking
lot by left wing Glenn Anderson during the national team's
training camp for the 1984 Canada Cup. "I was eight, and I was
bending down to tie my shoe," says Smyth, who, thanks to
Stafford, was Team Canada's stick boy during the camp. "Glenn
didn't see me and backed over me."

This is an article from the Feb. 4, 2002 issue Original Layout

Smyth went to the hospital with a twisted ankle and tire marks on
his shirt courtesy of a future 498-goal scorer, a badge of honor
he wouldn't let his mother wash off for the longest time. "For
people in the United States, what happens in the hockey
tournament in Salt Lake City will end in 12 days unless the
Americans win, in which case it will go on forever," says Los
Angeles Kings coach Andy Murray, a Team Canada assistant in 1998.
"For Canada it'll be 365 days a year, win or lose."

The Games in Salt Lake City have been a national obsession for
Canada since the Czech Republic's Dominik Hasek stoned the
Canadians in a semifinal shootout in Nagano four years ago. Ever
since, the homeland of hockey has viewed its favorite sport
through an Olympic prism. The 2001 Stanley Cup finals between the
Colorado Avalanche and the New Jersey Devils was as much a
referendum on Canadian goaltenders--Patrick Roy or Martin
Brodeur?--as it was a determination of the NHL champion. Team
Canada's orientation camp in September in Calgary, four days of
noncontact shinny, was lavished with coverage usually reserved
for the Games. The Dec. 15 announcement of Canada's final roster,
an event covered live by six television networks, was made by
seven men in dark suits, underscoring the seriousness of the task
of returning the gold medal to a nation that, despite recent
evidence to the contrary, still thinks of hockey supremacy as a
birthright.

Considering that its last Olympic gold came 50 years ago, Canada
is due. However, it's favored in Salt Lake City not only because
of talent but also because it's discarding the most Canadian of
conceits. "I've felt for some time that we've overemphasized our
work ethic and desire, and underemphasized our ability," says
Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, a veteran of Nagano and
a pillar of the 2002 team. "We always thought we could outwork
the other team, that we wanted it more than another country. That
wasn't necessarily true. We're as talented as any country, but
until now we've overlooked that."

Since Nagano, a generation of 25-and-younger forwards has
emerged, including Smyth, a slithery winger that Edmonton
teammates call the Octopus, and dynamic scorers like Jarome
Iginla of the Calgary Flames and Simon Gagne of the Philadelphia
Flyers. "In the last Olympics we played well, but we played a
workmanlike style, keeping the puck along the boards, keeping it
moving ahead, a lot of stationary play," Yzerman says. "With the
makeup of this club, we can be more of a puck-control team, the
way other countries are."

The Canadians weren't hiding their talent under a bushel in
Nagano, where their roster included hardworking pluggers like Rod
Brind'Amour, Shayne Corson, Trevor Linden, Keith Primeau and Rob
Zamuner--there were no other choices, except perhaps Mark Messier,
an old thoroughbred who wasn't about to pull a Canadian fire
wagon. There were gaping generation and talent gaps in Canadian
hockey in 1998, just as there had been in the late '70s and early
'80s, when the Soviet Union dominated the Challenge Cup and
Canada Cup until Wayne Gretzky and, later, Mario Lemieux
established themselves. With Smyth and some other young players
who have emerged in time to make the 2002 team, the talent gap
has been closed. "The greatest moments in Canadian hockey have
been about creativity, about letting Gretzky be Gretzky and Mario
be Mario and trusting that they knew how to win," says Detroit's
Brendan Shanahan, who in Salt Lake City is expected to play on a
line with Lemieux and Paul Kariya of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
"Talk about creativity. This team has [Colorado's Joe] Sakic,
Lemieux, Kariya. The last thing you want is to put handcuffs on
them."

The vision of a Team Canada that blends slick with sturdy belongs
to Gretzky, the club's executive director. Maybe he was a
quixotic choice to run the show--"a slap at every NHL general
manager," as one former G.M. puts it--but he was a brilliant
choice as well. The guy on the third stool in any Saskatchewan
tavern could have come up with at least 18 of the 23 players that
Gretzky, assistant Kevin Lowe and coach Pat Quinn picked. The
important thing is, Gretzky was doing the choosing, putting his
name and touch on a team that has the speed to handle the big
Olympic ice surface, the savvy to adapt to a game with no red
line, and scoring from four lines.

Many of the defining moments of Gretzky's unparalleled career
came while he was wearing the red maple leaf. The image of the
crestfallen Gretzky, alone, on the Team Canada bench after the
1998 shootout--a shootout in which coach Marc Crawford had chosen
not to use the player who holds the NHL record for goals--is
etched into the national consciousness.

That was just another in a series of disappointments for Canadian
hockey fans. Canada had lost the 1996 World Cup finals in
Montreal to the U.S. and watched franchises in Quebec City and
Winnipeg move south of the border as its percentage of players in
the NHL continued to dip. This season the league is 52.3%
Canadian, down from 64.2% as recently as the 1993-94 season. When
Hockey Canada approached Gretzky, he suggested that Detroit coach
Scotty Bowman should run the program, but the organization knew
whom it needed. In a land starved for Olympic glory, Gretzky is
Mom's meat loaf with a side of macaroni and cheese--comfort food.

He handpicked Quinn, an imposing man who coaches an aggressive
style with the Toronto Maple Leafs and who took the underdog
Vancouver Canucks to Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals. He's
also one of three men who have coached more than 1,000 NHL games
without winning a Cup. The decision to pass over Bowman,
universally recognized as a master behind the bench, for the
coaching job was a quasi-political one. While no one will say so
directly, the decision might have been rooted in '96, when Bowman
backed out of coaching Canada's World Cup team before the start
of training camp. When Bowman called Hockey Canada president Bob
Nicholson to inquire about the Olympic job, Nicholson told him to
phone Gretzky. The NHL's winningest coach declined to pursue it
further. "I have a great deal of respect for Scotty," Gretzky
says, "but it was one of those things. I just felt Pat was the
right guy."

The Team Canada brass also didn't think enough of Roy, the NHL's
winningest goaltender, to make him one of the eight preselected
players. Roy, who attended the orientation camp, announced on
Nov. 21 that he was removing himself from consideration for the
Olympic team because he wanted to concentrate on winning another
Stanley Cup with Colorado. Gretzky and Lowe talked of pressing
Roy to reconsider but ultimately decided they shouldn't have to
beg someone to play for his country. The mistake was not to have
asked him in the first place, something his good work in Nagano,
his Conn Smythe Trophy last spring and his 500-plus NHL victories
warranted.

Gretzky picked Brodeur, Toronto's Curtis Joseph and the Dallas
Stars' Ed Belfour, a trio whose grand reputations exceed their
current levels of play. Brodeur handles the puck brilliantly but
has not been his old self in stopping it. For all his early-round
playoff magic, the acrobatic Joseph, who does not play the
positional style that usually succeeds on big ice, hasn't won a
Stanley Cup and was in net during Canada's late World Cup
collapse in 1996. Belfour has beaten Roy twice in Game 7s and has
won a Cup, but he has had a disappointing season. "Three
outstanding goalies," one NHL general manager says, "but Roy is
on an entirely different level." After falling to Hasek in '98
and now facing the prospect of Russia's white-hot Nikolai
Khabibulin's snatching the 2002 gold, goaltending is an area that
should make Canada wary.

The run-up to the Olympics has been interminable and the
expectations are crushing, but as Smyth says, "It's always been
like that. It adds to the incentive." Almost 18 years after
handing out sticks to Gretzky, Messier and Anderson, he can be
part of Canada's all-hockey, all-the-time continuum. For Smyth
and Canada, Salt Lake City is where the rubber meets not the
shirt but the road.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GERRY THOMAS In addition to their corps of veteran stars, the Canadians expect dynamic young scorers like Iginla to stand and deliver.COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA The hustling Guerin (13) says that while playing in front of the home fans, he and his U.S. teammates will be driven to succeed.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO AL MACINNISCOLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO TONY AMONTE

Another Miracle?
Goaltending will determine the fate of the potent, Herb
Brooks-coached U.S. team

This happens with such cosmic regularity that you can set your
calendar by it. Once a generation the U.S. hosts a Winter
Olympics, and its hockey team does something wondrous (Squaw
Valley in 1960, Lake Placid in '80). In Salt Lake City, against
the backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains and the events of Sept. 11,
there's a growing sense that flag-waving fervor could help the
Americans win the hockey tournament in these patriot Games.

"With everything that's gone on in our country the last five
months, it's going to be even more meaningful for U.S. athletes
to do well," says right wing Bill Guerin, who like all 22 of his
teammates is an NHL player--in Guerin's case with the Boston
Bruins. "We'll be more driven because of that."

While the Americans will indeed have the home ice advantage, the
ice itself will work to their disadvantage. The Olympic ice
surface is about one condo larger--3,000 square feet--than cozy NHL
rinks. The geometry of the international game, because it's
played without the red line, is different, too. Europeans grow up
playing on big ice and Canadians have proved adaptable, but the
U.S. looked flummoxed by the open spaces during the 1998 Games in
Nagano, playing with none of the discretion needed to excel on
the larger surface.

"We had a decent team [in Nagano], but we were poorly prepared,"
right wing Brett Hull says. "We tried to play a wide-open style,
like the 1980s [Edmonton] Oilers, while every team in Europe on
big ice plays the neutral-zone trap. Why would the Europeans, who
skate so well and are so skilled, play a trap if that's not the
way you have to do it? We were giving up three-on-ones every
shift. We played the wrong system. There was a lot of
frustration, and it showed."

Herb Brooks, the mastermind of the U.S.'s gold medal winners in
1980 who's coaching this year's team, prefers an attacking style,
but he'll have to gently tap the brakes of a group of forwards as
formidable as any. (Through Sunday the 13 American forwards were
averaging slightly more goals per NHL game in 2001-02 than their
counterparts on the Canadian team.) Traditionally U.S. teams have
been built from the goal out, but since the emergence of dashing
center Mike Modano in the early 1990s, the Americans have been
able to match any country razzle-for-dazzle. The defense is less
imposing, an intriguing mix of older stars who have resurrected
their careers, like Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Phil Housley,
with a dollop of stay-at-home toughness in Aaron Miller. The key
to the defense and power play could be unsung Brian Rafalski, a
deft puck-mover who played professionally for four seasons in
Scandinavia before joining the NHL.

However, in the eye-blink of a short tournament, goaltending--as
the Czech Republic's Dominik Hasek proved in 1998--is likely to be
the decisive factor. A year ago it appeared to be America's soft
spot, but first-stringer Mike Richter is healthy again after
undergoing knee surgery last February. Richter can steal a
tournament, as he did in the 1996 World Cup, or help give one
away, as he did with a middling performance in Nagano. His solid
work behind a porous New York Rangers defense this season augurs
well for the U.S., but Richter is 3-5 with a 3.63 goals-against
average in his two previous Olympics.

Like the U.S. team, he's a riddle wrapped in an enigma--wrapped
in a flag.

Shooting Stars
Here are Pierre McGuire's recommended Olympic shootout lineups
for Canada and the U.S.

CANADA

1. Al MacInnis, BLUES Should go first because of his ability to
overpower and rattle the goaltender with 100-mph blast.

2. Joe Sakic, AVALANCHE Outstanding moves and lightning release;
he is the master at shooting for the five hole.

3. Paul Kariya, MIGHTY DUCKS Can hit the top shelf of the goal
with either backhand or forehand shot.

4. Joe Nieuwendyk, STARS Head always up when he attacks,
allowing him to read goalie and make necessary adjustments.

5. Mario Lemieux, PENGUINS Best goes last; can shoot puck
through a needle's eye and also turn goalie into pretzel with
his moves.

UNITED STATES

1. Jeremy Roenick, FLYERS Most underrated part of his game is
ability to keep puck on his stick until he finds opening.

2. Brian Rolston, BRUINS Speedster won't try anything fancy;
he'll most likely pick one of the net's four corners.

3. Brett Hull, RED WINGS Has the world's quickest release in
addition to remarkable composure.

4. Tony Amonte, BLACKHAWKS Terrific backhand shot; ability to
roof the puck forces goaltenders to guard the entire net.

5. Mike Modano, STARS Always had speed and shot, now he's
unpredictable, too; has ideal poise for last shooter.