The only Olympic games Canadians really care about
If I needed a vivid reminder of how long I've been away from my home country, this was it.
An old school friend emailed this week to ask my thoughts on the Canadian team's chances at the Olympics. I replied that I was pretty excited about kayaker Adam van Koeverden, swimmer Brent Hayden and the men's eight rowing crew. However, the Road To Excellence program, installed in 2005, simply hasn't had enough time to impact the nation's medal potential in Beijing.
"Beijing?," he responded, giving me the email version of a slap upside the head. "I'm talking about Vancouver!"
Of course he was.
And if I hadn't been down in Texas, I would have realized that immediately. The sad reality for world-class Canadian athletes who can neither shoot nor stop a puck is that the majority of their countrymen may have a passing interest in their exploits over the next two weeks, but the only Olympic event they care about, truly and passionately, is the 2010 hockey tournament.
So what if it's still two years off? It's already been the subject of TV shows, internet polls and countless barroom debates. With the humiliation of Torino still fresh and sharp 30 months later, Canadian fans are reeling. Vengeance on their home ice is front of mind.
And so the biggest concern this week is not the injury to hurdler Perdita Felicien or the loss of the baseball team's ace starter Scott Richmond, but how best to craft a hockey team for 2010 out of the richest crop of talent in the world.
To get back in touch with my people, here's how I see it going down:
When the 13 forward slots are filled, the Canadians should offer an unmatchable blend of size, skill, physicality and two-way play. No surprise that the first line pivot will be Sidney Crosby. If he's not clearly the best player in the world at that point, he'll be in the mix alongside Alexander Ovechkin. His running mates should include Canada's top power forward -- Jarome Iginla -- and Dany Heatley, who became the country's all-time leading scorer at the World Championships after putting up 12 goals and 20 points in just nine games this spring.
Pencil the silky smooth Vincent Lecavalier in for the second line. It's impossible to forget his magnificent performance during Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup run in 2004, or his clutch overtime goal against the Czechs that advanced Canada to the finals of the last World Cup. His passing skills should make the most of Rick Nash, who has 21 goals in 27 games at the Worlds and should be motivated by his poor performance in Torino.
While he's not going to dislodge another center from a job, it's hard to imagine Jonathan Toews not being part of the team. A born leader (he'll wear the C for Chicago next season at the age of 20) and an international ace (see his shootout performance against the Americans at the 2007 World Juniors), he'll be a catalyst even if he's playing out of position.
You can argue which line will be designated third and fourth, but Canada has always relied heavily on its checking unit. Mike Richards, Brenden Morrow and Shane Doan may lack the glamour of some of the NHL's more prestigious scorers, but they're the sort of players you can go to war with. This group will have the firepower (88 goals between them in 2007-08), leadership skills (all three wear the C) and defensive chops that may see them playing more minutes than any other group.
The final four forwards all boast first-line skill, but the humility to play a lesser role if necessary. Ryan Getzlaf's imposing size, smartly employed physicality and scoring touch could make him one of the game's top-five players by the time the Olympics roll around. The left-shooting Eric Staal, a center by trade, could slide over to the port side while Martin St. Louis provides speed and experience.
The final spot, if he wants it, goes to the captain, Joe Sakic. He'll be closing in on 41 when the Games get underway, and there are no assurances he'll still be playing at that point. Still, with the Olympics in his backyard -- he was born in Burnaby, BC -- Sakic may be convinced to wear the Maple Leaf for the eighth time.
If Sakic would rather watch on TV, the 13th forward should be Sam Gagner. With 18 months to go before Vancouver, he still has some areas of his game (strength, two-way play) that demand improvement. But there's plenty to like about him, including his ability to exploit the seams that appear on the big ice, his attitude and, most important, his penalty shot skills. In international play, those could prove very useful.
There are several obvious omissions, most notably Joe Thornton. No one can dispute the skills the former MVP is capable of bringing to the table, but a playoff history clouded by performances that don't nearly match what he offered in the regular season suggest that maybe he's not quite cut out for this kind of high-pressure environment. Others who'll be in the running, but likely found lacking, include Jason Spezza (like Thornton, not mentally tough enough), Derek Roy (the Adam Oates of his generation) and Ryan Smyth (age -- he'll be 34-- will have taken away too much of his game).
The blueline will be in transition from the old guard to the new, but the Canadians should still boast enough experience to make it one of the top two groups in Vancouver. At least four vets of Torino -- Adam Foote, Wade Redden, Bryan McCabe and Rob Blake -- won't return, and a fifth -- Scott Niedermayer -- is a good bet to retire after this season. That leaves just two returnees: Chris Pronger and Robyn Regehr, although Regehr will be in tough to hold onto the seventh spot.
Joining those two will be Dion Phaneuf, Shea Weber, Jay Bouwmeester, Dan Boyle and Brent Burns. As a unit, they boast size (averaging 6-3, 211 pounds), mobility, and the versatility to manage special teams as adeptly as they do five-on-five play. All of them have international experience -- Weber and Phaneuf were partners with the junior team -- that should help them make the transition to this stage.
In the mix, but likely on the outside looking in: Washington's Mike Green, Chicago's Brian Campbell and Duncan Keith, Philly's Braydon Coburn, and Ed Jovanovski of the Coyotes.
Roberto Luongo, another star of the World Cup semi-final win over the Czechs, should be ready to assume the No. 1 job in the Canadian nets after apprenticing behind Martin Brodeur at the last two majors. Brodeur's game likely won't have slipped much at that point, but as a team player, he'll respect the importance of passing the torch at this event.
The third goalie slot offers nothing more than a spot in the team photo and the chance to spell Luongo during game day practices, so it should go to a promising youngster rather than a veteran like J-S Giguere or Marty Turco. Look for Marc-Andre Fleury, the goat of the 2004 World Juniors, to begin his path to redemption here.
Grab Mike Babcock as the head coach, assisted by Ken Hitchcock and Dave Tippett, and you'll have an elite bench staff.
And if all is right with the world, it'll be Team Canada GM Wayne Gretzky with the honor of lighting the Olympic flame at the opening ceremonies.
That's the way I see it rolling. Let the slings and arrows fly...