HALIFAX – Canada is hoping to become the first nation since the Soviet Union in 1986 to win the World Championship on home ice. This might not seem like a daunting challenge, but by virtue of it not having been achieved for more than two decades, there must be a reason for this home “disadvantage”. Of course, in several of the intervening years, the host nation simply never had a realistic chance to win (i.e., Germany 1993, Switzerland, Norway 1999), but clearly the pressure of playing in front of home crowds is a huge factor. Whether it’s media pressure or fans booing every mistake at a time when they expect gold, the pleasure of playing at home is often nullified by the high hometown hopes. Canada, however, has won everywhere it has played, and one would think if any group of players can ignore the pressures, it’s Canada’s. On the other hand, no place else will the pressure be as great to win gold, either.
Carolina’s Cam Ward is the only returnee in the crease from last year. He’ll be joined by Pascal Leclaire, who had an outstanding season in Columbus, and Edmonton’s Mathieu Garon. Ward has the experience, but Leclaire was second in the NHL with nine shutouts this season and will be pushing hard to be the number-one goalie. Regardless, this is an excellent trio of puckstoppers.
Canada’s back line is a blend of new blood and veteran leaders. The defence is led by Ed Jovanovski and Jay Bouwmeester, both of whom have many appearances for Team Canada on their resume from juniors to Olympics. Steve Staios and Dan Hamhuis also have previous experience, and Washington defenceman Mike Green is coming off a career year for the Capitals. This is a mobile defence that can play reliably in either end of the ice. The aforementioned group will also see plenty of time on the power play. Joining them will be the less-experienced Mark Giordano, who played in Russia this past season; Brent Burns, the exciting up-and-comer in Minnesota; and, Duncan Keith of Chicago, from a Hawks team full of hope and promise for the future.
Several big time names lead the way for Canada, starting with last year’s gold-medal captain, Shane Doan. He’ll be joined by tournament MVP of 2007, Rick Nash, who scored the brilliant final goal in Canada’s 3-1 win over Finland to win the gold. Nash is recovering quickly from minor surgery to his tonsils but should be ready for opening night. Dany Heatley, twice a gold-medal winner with Canada at the World Championship and MVP in 2004, will provide plenty of scoring for his country. Eric Staal, who won a Stanley Cup as a rookie in Carolina in 2004 is here, as is Martin St. Louis of Tampa Bay. The skill hardly ends there. Heatley’s teammate in Ottawa, Jason Spezza, is also on the team, as is Jonathan Toews, a star last year and a Calder Trophy finalist this year, and Sam Gagner, the MVP of the Super Series vs. the Russians last fall and a top rookie with Edmonton this season. Ryan Getzlaf, who won gold with Canada’s juniors in 2005, is also on hand. In short, this is a top-flight team that has the potential to score a pile of goals.
General manager Steve Yzerman has recruited Columbus’s Ken Hitchcock as the boss. Hitchcock has been coaching for decades and has been part of Team Canada on many occasions, most notably at the 2002 Olympics and 2004 World Cup. He is familiar with international hockey, as well as the pressures of representing Canada, and as such is an ideal candidate to run a short tournament. As always, getting the team to come together quickly and play a simply system, will be one of the keys to success. As well, since this year’s tournament will be played on NHL-size ice, Hitchcock’s NHL coaching experience will also be helpful.
This is a team built for gold. At home, in the IIHF’s centennial season, playing in Canada for the first time, fans and media will expect nothing less. Yzerman has built a team absolutely capable of winning, and if one compares last year’s winning roster to this, the current edition is overwhelmingly superior. But that’s on paper. The games are played on ice. This is Canada’s gold to lose.