Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's our game, but it won't be easy: TAYLOR

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It has been 50 years since Canada won an Olympic gold medal in men's hockey, Not since 1952, when the Edmonton Mercurys returned Canada to the top of the podium, has any type of conglomeration of Canadian hockey players won a gold medal. We've sent pseudo-national teams, national senior champions, even our greatest NHL stars, but we haven't brought home gold in 50 years.

So I guess there isn't much riding on this two-week tournament in this minor-league city.

Oh, only...
Canada's sporting manhood; the direction of the National Hockey League in the United States; the direction of hockey overall in the United States; and redemption for Canada, the USA and Russia.

"This is the biggest tournament in hockey, ever," said Florida Panthers scout Slava Lener, co-coach with Ivan Hlinka of the Czech Republic's 1998 gold-medal team. "I would compare it to the first Canada Cup.

"Everybody knows the world championships are important. But they take place every year. Everybody knows that top players don't play in the world championships. It will be different in Salt Lake. The players in Salt Lake will be the very best in the entire world. This will be the best you can get."

The fourth-place result at the 1998 Nagano Games was a huge disappointment for Canada. With a team of NHL stars at the Games, a team led by Wayne Gretzky, Canada was expected to be no worse than the gold medallist. After all, the Canadians had won back-to-back silver medals in Albertville in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994 and sent teams to those Olympics that featured a few NHL stars, but consisted mostly of minor leaguers and amateurs.

This time, there are no excuses and Gretzky, now the general manager, knows it.

"I really like the Canadian players," said Gretzky. "I still think we have some of the best players in the game and I really think this team will have as good a chance at the gold medal as any team from any country."

Six teams have already qualified -- Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and Russia. Two more teams will make the round-robin tournament at a pre-qualifying event from Feb. 8- 14.

Unlike 1998, when games aired on tape delay or at insomniacs' hours, every 2002 game will be available live on CBC or an NBC network. There will be no escaping the glare of the TV cameras.

So what can we expect?

United States: A Winter Games on U.S. soil should mean a gold medal for the home side. The Yanks did it in 1960 at Squaw Valley and at Lake Placid in 1980. The United States has reached back for some of the 1980 magic by installing Herb Brooks as coach. Brooks coached the 1980 Miracle on Ice team and was the last player cut from the 1960 gold medalists.

The U.S. entered 1998 with gold medal expectations. They had won the 1996 World Cup going away and had taken almost the same team to Nagano. But they beat only Belarus in group play, were dismissed by the Czechs 4-1 and engaged in some rather uncharacteristic Animal House pranks in the Olympic dorm.

This year's team is a lot like the 1980 team although it's a better skating unit, especially up front and there is championship experience in goal with Mike Richter (one World Cup, one Stanley Cup) and Tom Barasso (two Stanley Cups). The problem could be that the U.S. defence is older than dirt.

Russia: The Russians were second in Nagano and will be just as good this time around. If there is one team that boasts pure, raw-skating and stickhandling ability it's Slava Fetsiov's Russians.

They also have the coach they want.

The original coach was Boris Mikhailov, symbol of the hated Soviet system and a student of the despised Viktor Tikhonov. Amid some angry player rumblings, Fetisov and Panthers RW Pavel Bure had lunch with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

By the end of the day, Mikhailov was out and Fetisov was GM and coach.

With the likes of Bure, Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Zhamnov and goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, this will be a monster Russian team.

Czech Republic: To understand how important this tournament is to the Czechs, let us recall their reaction to the 1998 gold medal. More than 130,000 people celebrated with the team in Prague's Old Town Square.

The Czech people have never forgotten the 1968 Prague Spring when the Russian tanks rolled in. They have never forgotten the Warsaw Pact years and all those silver medals behind the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. Nagano was their version of the 1980 Miracle on Ice and the 1952 Edmonton Mercurys win.

The Czechs are under tremendous pressure to repeat, but they have the horses to do it. With Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias, Peter Sykora and goaltender Dominik Hasek, the Czechs will be a fearsome opponent.

Sweden: Speed, speed and more speed. Even without Peter Forsberg, the Swedes will be fast, skilled and highly motivated.

Led by Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin, who is playing the finest hockey of his career, GM Anders Hedberg's team will be an offensive juggernaut.

Swedish head coach Hardy Nilsson has decided to adopt his nation's famous "Torpedo System," for Salt Lake City. That means the Swedes will send out four forwards and one defenceman and will attack from all angles. While the Czechs and Russians trap, the Swedes will forecheck aggressively and try to jam the puck in the opponent's zone for the entire 60 minutes.

Throw in the fact they have a red-hot goalie in Tommy Salo and a terrific backup in Johan Hedberg and this will be a formidable opponent for Team Canada. Finland: Another team built on pure speed. Led by Teemu Selanne and Sami Kapanen, the Finns not only have a load of talent, but after they beat Canada in the bronze medal game in Nagano, they also have a high level of confidence.

Of course, they also have one of the finest collections of defencemen ever assembled for an Olympic Games. There isn't a team in the NHL that wouldn't take a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup if they could boast a defensive unit that included Teppo Numminen of the Coyotes, Janne Niinimaa of the Oilers, Jere Karalahti of the Kings, Sami Salo of the Senators, Kimmo Timmonen of the Predators and Jyrki Lumme of the Leafs.

If there is a weak spot, it's the fact Jani Hurme is the No. 1 goaltender. Of course, with that defence, there probably won't be many shots on goal.

Canada: Team Canada has a terrific roster. From captain Mario Lemieux to young defenceman Eric Brewer, the team combines skill, speed, goal scoring ability and an exerienced defence. The Canadians are already gold medal favourites, but to a man they know the gold is no guarantee.

The tournament begins on Feb. 15, when Canada faces Sweden in its opener.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2002 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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