VANCOUVER – When the puck drops this Wednesday night to start the Vancouver-Boston best-of-seven for the Stanley Cup, it will answer many questions that have international implications. First and foremost, whatever team wins the Cup will allow one new member to join the Triple Gold Club, which currently boasts 24 players and one coach.
If Vancouver wins, it will mean goalie Roberto Luongo will join the TGC. He won World Championship golds in 2003 and ’04, and was the winning goalie, of course, at the 2010 Olympics right in his own back yard, so to speak. He would become the first goalie to join the TGC.
If the Bruins win, Patrice Bergeron will have that distinction. He joined Luongo in 2004 to win World gold and again in the 2010 Olympics. Either way, the TGC will expand by one when the Cup is won.
Both coaches have previously coached the Montreal Canadiens, but Claude Julien also coached Canada’s U20 team in 2000, winning bronze. Alain Vigneault coached in the QMJHL for several years but never at the international level.
Vancouver has been dubbed “Canada’s team” because the last Canadian team to win the Cup was Montreal, back in 1993, and the consensus in the country is that any Canadian team winning is better than none, again. Ironically, if the Canucks do win, they’ll be led by the Sedin twins of Sweden. They have made history the last two years because last year Henrik won the Art Ross Trophy and this year Daniel won, something no brothers have ever done in the NHL. But their international careers are rich, of course, from U20 to World Championships to Olympics.
Two other Swedes feature prominently on the team, Mikael Samuelsson and Alexander Edler. Samuelsson won the Cup with Detroit in 2008 and was a key free agent signing by the Canucks two years later. Edler, with less experience, is still establishing himself as a player capable of playing on the game’s biggest stage.
The other most dominant, prominent Canucks forward is Ryan Kesler, and American graduate of the National Team Development Program who has played at all four levels of IIHF hockey for Team USA, most recently at the 2010 Olympics. Chris Higgins and Andrew Alberts are the other top Americans on the team.
One of the team’s top defencemen is Christian Ehrhoff, a German who has played for his country ten times, starting at the 1999 World U18 Championship.
The international makeup of the team continues with Finnish defenceman Sami Salo and Danish right winger Jannik Hansen. Hansen has played in every game for the Canucks this post season while Salo is averaging nearly 20 minutes of ice time a game.
Of course, several Canadians have helped the Canucks get to where they are, notably Luongo. Alexandre Burrows is a great feel-good story. Undrafted and unwanted, he signed with the Canucks, worked his way up through the system, and is now a top two-way player in the league.
Ditto for Kevin Bieksa. A low draft choice who seemed to have little NHL potential, the defenceman has averaged nearly 26 minutes a game, tops on the team. An important part of the offence and a key to keeping the puck out of his net, he was never invited to represent Canada internationally.
Another defenceman, Dan Hamhuis, has. He played at 2001 and 2002 U20, winning bronze and silver, and he also played in four consecutive World Championships, from 2006 through 2009. He is a tower of strength on the Vancouver blueline.
At the other end, Boston also leads with an Olympic goalie, although Tim Thomas didn’t get much game action in Vancouver because Ryan Miller was so good. Thomas is an incredible story, a late bloomer who played almost anonymously for a decade before assuming a starring role in the last few years. Few fans likely remember him playing for USA at the 1996, 1998, or 1999 World Championship, though. More remember he also played at the 2008 Worlds.
Patrice Bergeron, by virtue of the NHL lockout in 2004-05, holds an incredible record. He won World Championship gold before he won U20 gold, and then won gold at the 2010 Olympics. Nathan Horton of Welland, Ontario, never played for Canada because he started in the NHL at 18 with Florida, going years as an unappreciated superstar but one who has attracted new-found attention now that he’s playing in a great hockey city.
Of course, there is no bigger player in Boston – or, literally, the entire league – than captain Zdeno Chara. While Slovak fans might be disappointed he was unavailable for the recent World Championship in Bratislava and Kosice, they might be overjoyed if he is able to bring the Stanley Cup home for a day in the summer. As he goes, so goes the team’s defence.
Two other Europeans feature prominently on the team. Defenceman Tomas Kaberle of the Czech Republic has had inconsistent playoffs, but if he can step up his game, he can be the difference between winning and losing. As well, 30-year-old German Dennis Seidenberg is with his fifth team and has his best chance to etch his name in the game’s history. Incredibly, he is averaging 28:22 of ice time a game, more than Chara or any other player in the Cup finals.
At 43, Mark Recchi is the oldest player in the NHL. Believe it or not, he played for Canada at the 1988 U20 when the captain was Theo Fleury and other teammates included Joe Sakic, Trevor Linden, and Adam Graves. Canada won gold that year and Recchi later won gold at the World Championship as well. His Olympic bid in 1998, though, fell short, so he won’t be joining TGC members if the Bruins win.
Indeed, the hockey world is now an international world. Players who are in the Cup finals one year are in the Olympics or World Championships another. This year, TGC history will be made, and other players will draw on their international experience to help them play their best and lead their team to the Stanley Cup. For other players, this series will be their experience to help them in the future, in Finland and Sweden next year, or Sochi in 2014. Who knows?