Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Future is here and its name is Toews

All-around players the new superstars

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BUFFALO -- Who would have thunk that the prototypical international hockey player of the 21st century -- the poster boy for Team Canada outfits now and into the future -- would come from little ol' Winnipeg.

But it's true. Hockey is always evolving, and nowhere is that more evident at world junior and Olympic competitions, where the blueprint for building teams centres on an interchangeable roster where specialists are extinct. Pure goal-scorers with defensive liabilities are dinosaurs.

So when Hockey Canada intelligentsia convene to compose a team from the wealthiest hockey nation, with seemingly endless possibilities, there is a new benchmark.

His name is Jonathan Toews.

"That's a great example of how the game has changed," said Team Canada GM Scott Salmond, referring to the Chicago Blackhawks captain, who was instrumental in two world junior championships and Canada's Olympic gold in Vancouver. "On the Olympic team, he (Toews) was supposed to be our prototypical third-line player. At the end of the day he might have been the best player."

For the record, Toews was voted top forward at the Olympics. Not the flashiest. Not the most offensively gifted. Not the guy who scored the game-winner in overtime.

It's no coincidence that when Salmond, who was on the ground floor of constructing the Olympic team along with Steve Yzerman and Co., set out to assemble his first world junior outfit, the concept of a bunch of Toews clones was a starting point.

"I think that's our strength," Salmond said. "Everyone in this tournament has a top line that can really play. I think we've got four. We can play against any line. We didn't want to be a team that had to match. We just wanted four lines and keep on rolling them. We can play anyone on the power play and anyone can kill penalties.

"That's more the way the game is. We're a big group that can skate and compete hard. I've been around for a while and I think this is a special group of four lines. We're not going to ask any player to put the team on their shoulders. It's going to be a team effort if we're going to win.

"Everyone talks about how you need two lines that can score, an energy line and a fourth line. We're just four real solid lines, and that's probably unique. You need complete guys. It's tough to have anybody on a national team like this who is a specialist."

Top Canadian-born scorer in the WHL? Not here. Top Canadian scorer in the OHL? Nope.

But then there's Winnipeg's Cody Eakin, ranked 23rd in scoring in the WHL with the Swift Current Broncos. Not the most gifted, but rock-solid in all the categories Hockey Canada brass and head coach Dave Cameron prize the most.

"His (Eakin's) compete level is outstanding," Salmond noted. "If Eakin and those guys were our fourth line (in an opening 6-3 victory over Russia), they were our best line out there."

It's not just because the Canadians don't have one or two marquee players in Buffalo. It's not just because head coach Dave Cameron has built his Mississauga St. Michael's Majors into an OHL powerhouse without a single superstar.

It's the evolution of the player and the game, plain and simple. The elimination of obstruction was like the meteor falling on the fourth-line plugger (Remember Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby?). The one-dimensional sniper who scored 40 goals but ended up with a minus-20 has no room on the Columbus Blue Jackets, much less Team Canada.

Question: Would you rather have four lines of Alex Ovechkins or four lines of Sidney Crosbys? Four lines of Toews clones, or four of Evgeni Malkin?

Oh, all of them can play. They're all stars. But the speed of the game, especially on a global level, doesn't allow for 150-foot players that neglect one zone anymore. Size is still a factor. In fact, the Canadian crew in Buffalo is the second largest ever, the same average height but five pounds lighter than the championship club that won gold in 2005 in Grand Forks.

Indeed, nothing underlined the Canadian philosophy and intent more than Sunday night's dismantling of the talented Russians. The game was tied 3-3 after two periods, but the Canucks were far more physical, hammering the Russians systematically. Said Salmond: "I just think we grinded them down."

Six different Canadian players scored six different goals. There is no evidence to suggest that trend will change when Canada faces the Czech Republic this afternoon for their second contest of the preliminary round.

Get used to it, hosers. What Toews accomplished in Vancouver, and later in the Stanley Cup playoffs, has cast the die on how our international shinny teams will be built for years to come. Or until they start losing.

It's 2010, and the complete player has arrived. Just don't forget where he came from.

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2010 C1

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About Randy Turner

While attending Boissevain High School in the late 1970’s, Randy Turner one day read an account of a Winnipeg Jets game in the Free Press when it dawned on him: "Really, you can get paid to watch sports?"

Turner later graduated with a spectacularly mediocre 2.3 GPA from Red River Community College’s Creative Communications program. 

After jobs at the Stonewall Argus and Selkirk Journal, he began working on the Rural page for the Free Press in 1987. Several years later, he realized his dream of watching sports for a living covering the Winnipeg Goldeyes and Bombers.

In 2001, Turner became a general sports columnist, where he watched Canada win its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years at Salt Lake, then watched them win again in Vancouver in 2010.

He also watched everything from high school hockey and volleyball championship to several Grey Cups, NHL finals and World Junior hockey tournaments.

In the fall of 2011, Turner became a general features writer for the paper. But he still watches way too much sports.

Turner has been nominated for three National Newspaper Awards in sports writing.

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