Commentary

Team Canada can't escape politics

Updated: June 25, 2009, 6:35 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

MONTREAL -- Only in Canada can the formation of an Olympic hockey team be shot through with political land mines. That simply comes with the territory when a game isn't merely a pastime, but is woven into the fabric of a nation's identity.

That's why, despite perhaps more obvious choices, former Montreal great and Stanley Cup-winning coach Jacques Lemaire was sitting there Thursday morning with a brand-new Team Canada hat and jersey with his name and the number 10 -- as in 2010 -- stitched on the back after being introduced as part of Mike Babcock's coaching staff.

It's not that Lemaire isn't a great hockey mind -- his résumé as a player, administrator and coach includes 11 Stanley Cup rings -- but the simple fact is, with no francophones on the management team, it was incumbent on Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman to come up with a qualified coach who was also French-Canadian.

Although the head of Hockey Canada, Bob Nicholson, downplayed the specter of politics and language in the makeup of this Canadian Olympic team, the bottom line is, in Canada, the two official languages play a significant role in sports, especially in hockey.

Had Lemaire -- or Claude Julien or Alain Vigneault -- not been named to the staff, Yzerman would have spent much of the coming months answering questions about why there wasn't a francophone on board.

Don't believe us?

Remember when Shane Doan was named captain of Canada's world championship team two years ago? Doan had been accused of making an anti-French comment to an NHL on-ice official, and even though the allegation never had any legs, Hockey Canada officials had to appear before Canada's Parliament to justify Doan's appointment as team captain.

And that was just the world championships, a tournament that gets only modest attention, even in Canada.

This is an Olympic team preparing to play in the Olympic Games in Vancouver. Every burp and whiffle made by Yzerman and his team -- from the selection of this coaching staff that includes Babcock, Lemaire, Lindy Ruff and Ken Hitchcock to the invitations to the team's August orientation camp to the naming of the roster later this year to the tournament itself -- will be dissected and re-dissected.

The fact the management/coaching team now has an acceptable -- dare we say, politically correct? -- Canadian balance to it, there will be one fewer distraction for the Canadian squad to deal with, and every eliminated distraction is going to make life easier for everyone connected to this team.

Which brings us to Lemaire.

Although there will be those who believe coaches like Julien, recently named coach of the year at the NHL awards ceremony, or Barry Trotz or Andy Murray would have been more qualified or deserving of the post, Nicholson said Lemaire's name was one of the first the management group came up with.

"It didn't take them very long to get to Jacques," Nicholson said.

What makes his inclusion to the staff so interesting is not once in his storied career has Lemaire taken part in an international competition as a player or coach for Canada.

Lemaire admitted he didn't accept Yzerman's invitation right away. Instead, Lemaire, who left as coach of the Minnesota Wild after GM Doug Risebrough was fired this spring, asked for a day or so to think about it. He didn't know whether he was going to get another NHL coaching job and, if so, whether he could juggle doing both jobs.

But shortly after the Yzerman call, Babcock called.

"He said I have to come," Lemaire said with a smile. "I didn't know what I was going to do."

Babcock told Lemaire how he always watched Lemaire's teams closely, trying to learn how they played. "I guess he likes me. That's how I get there," Lemaire said, still grinning.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

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