Gretzky picks proven winners
In the hours before Wayne Gretzky and his Team Canada staff unveiled their World Cup team, the Great One told ESPN.com the selection process was all about one thing: picking the best Canadian team that could win.
To the untrained eye, that may read like two things, but the Great One saw it as two criteria that in the end would produce one seamless entity, a Canadian team good enough to win the World Cup of Hockey.
The tournament, which pits eight nations from around the world in an our-best vs. your-best format, is an outgrowth of the old Canada Cup series that gained international fame in the 1980s when it usually resulted in Team Canada playing squads from the Soviet Union. It has since morphed into the World Cup of Hockey; a tournament last staged in 1996 when, much to Canada's dismay, it produced a championship for America in a showdown with Canada.
Canada has redeemed itself on several occasions since, including the 2002 Olympics (a gold medal to USA's silver) and back-to-back gold medal wins at the annual World Championships. Still, the World Cup of Hockey is out there without Team Canada's name on the trophy, and in announcing his squad for the tournament, which runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 14, Gretzky made it abundantly clear he wasn't picking an all-star team and wasn't going to show blind loyalty to the team he managed to Olympic gold.
He and his management staff of Kevin Lowe (Edmonton Oilers), Steve Tambellini (Vancouver Canucks) and Bob Nicholson (Hockey Canada) instead went for a team that can win the way hockey is played in North America right now.
"We know that each and every team in this tournament has the possibility of winning the championship," Gretzky said. "It's that close. So when you get down to the nitty gritty, you need guys who've been there in the past."
OK, truth be told, it isn't all that close: Of the eight teams, six -- Canada, the U.S., Russia, Sweden, Slovakia and the Czech Republic -- have to be considered serious candidates. Finland and Germany are good and getting better on the world stage, seemingly every year, but while they have potential to upset a given opponent, they are not viewed as bona fide threats to win it all.
In Canada, the presumption isn't that the team could win, it is always that it should win. Whenever it doesn't, it's viewed as someone's mistake.
Don't believe it? Canada is still smarting over that '96 loss to the United States. The Canadians used it to motivate their gold-medal effort at Salt Lake City, and it was a part of the reason (along with a failed outing at Nagano in 1998) that Hockey Canada was able to entice Gretzky into managing the 2002 Olympic effort and this team.
"We're Canadians," said Gretzky at that time. "Hockey is what we identify with and what the world identifies us with. It's our national passion, and with that comes a certain amount of pressure to succeed."
It shows in the Team Canada selection process.
There are a number of new faces on this team, faces that weren't on the 2002 Olympic squad, but they are not there because some of the Olympians got old or -- Theo Fleury (rehab clinic) and Todd Bertuzzi (suspension) -- had their life go south.
The mix is largely of veterans who have won at high levels of competition in the past, Olympics, Stanley Cup or international play; up-and-comers who make up much of the new face of hockey excellence in Canada; and role players who are experienced National Hockey Leaguers who might bring a specific talent or mind-set to a game that is played under NHL rules and on an NHL-sized ice surface instead of Olympic rules and the bigger Olympic-sized ice.
"We love the fact that guys like [Steve] Yzerman [Detroit] and [Chris] Pronger [St. Louis] and Mario [Lemieux, Pittsburgh] and Marty Brodeur [New Jersey] understand the pressures this team is under," Gretzky said in a news conference announcing the lineup in Calgary, Alberta. "[The idea] is that going into that third period at 2-2, they can really exert a calming influence in the locker room. Coaches can only do so much. Then the players need to take over in the locker room themselves."
That mind-set goes a long way toward illuminating the thought process that went into shaping the Team Canada roster.
Two of the three goaltenders -- Brodeur and Ed Belfour (Toronto) -- are Stanley Cup winners, and both also have Olympic gold medals. Belfour never played a minute in the 2002 Olympic outing, but Gretzky told ESPN.com that the committee was impressed with the way he handled that perceived snub at Salt Lake City and showed an attitude that Gretzky wants to permeate the rest of the team.
"Eddie is a winner [he won the Cup in 1999 with Dallas] and he plays in a pressure-packed environment, and that shows he's mentally tough," Gretzky said. "At Salt Lake, he had to swallow some pride, but he did that. He went to every meeting, he worked as hard as he could to be ready if we called on him and he talked to the rest of the guys, including the other goalies, helping them in any way he could. That showed us a lot. We want guys like that. They may not play the number of minutes that they're used to being as good as they are and as important to their league teams, but on this team we need them to do what we ask of them and to the very best of their ability, and he showed he was willing to do that."
|“||We're Canadians. Hockey is what we identify with and what the world identifies us with. It's our national passion, and with that comes a certain amount of pressure to succeed. ”|
|— Wayne Gretzky|
That kind of thinking is reflected in numerous other areas of the roster. The team certainly is loaded with what fans would perceive as All-Star quality talent -- Lemieux, Yzerman, Joe Sakic (Colorado), Jarome Iginla (Calgary) and the like. There are a handful of less experienced but no less talented players such as goaltender Roberto Luongo (Florida) and forwards Brad Richards (Tampa Bay) and Dany Heatley (Atlanta), but the team also has more than a few selections that would raise an eyebrow with the typical fan.
Gretzky brought back everyone but injured Al MacInnis (St. Louis) from his Olympic-team defense -- Pronger, and Rob Blake and Adam Foote (Colorado), Scott Niedermayer (New Jersey), Ed Jovanovski (Vancouver) and Eric Brewer (Edmonton) -- but he added players such as Calgary defenseman Robyn Regehr and Ottawa defenseman Wade Redden over more well-known names because they are viewed as intense competitors with some grit to their game.
Those kinds of "upgrades" permeate the lineup. Michael Peca (New York Islanders) appears to have been replaced by Kris Draper (Detroit), who is a player with a similar game but is a little bigger and stronger, and adds a tad more offense to a primarily physical, defensive-minded game.
Joe Thornton, the big center out of Boston, earned a spot over the older and oft-injured Eric Lindros. Swift and tenacious Martin St. Louis (Tampa Bay) seemingly replaces Fleury on the wing, and gifted and intense Shane Doan (Phoenix) replaces slower and older Brendan Shanahan (Detroit) on the opposite side.
"This team focuses on talent and passion," said Tambellini, the team's director of player personnel.
Added Gretzky: "It is a grittier team and a little bit different from the team in Salt Lake City in that we have guys who may be stronger on the wall and in the corners and are capable of winning the little battles.
"It's a hard-working team, but that hard work starts with guys like Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla. Your talented players set the tone for your work ethic, and that makes for a good mix."
In essence, that's exactly what this team is, a good mix. The team has star power of the highest order, with pressure-tested experience to boot. It also has a goodly amount of youthful talent that will certainly be hungry both to win and to prove it belongs on a roster of this caliber. Sprinkled in with that are some gritty, physical and strong-willed players who may not be the best known in the game but are best known for their one Canadian essential, the willingness to do anything to win.
"The essence of the Canadian approach to the game is to find a way to win no matter what," Gretzky said. "It's a part of our game, something we like to think is unique to Canada."
The rest of the hockey-playing world often can match Canada in talent, tactics and physical ability, but playing the game as if every fiber of their being would be sacrificed just to win is something the rest of the world can't always match.
It's a part of what goes into the making of Canada's team.
Only time will tell whether Gretzky's selections will blend into the kind of team that has that intangible edge, but a long look at the roster would lead one to believe it is on the right track.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.