NHL's lockout is Canada's gain

Updated: December 9, 2004, 9:53 AM ET
By E.J. Hradek | ESPN The Magazine

If anyone has reason to be just a little bit happy about the National Hockey League lockout, it's the folks at Hockey Canada. Each year, they're charged with selecting their country's team for the World Junior Championship, which, north of the border, is akin to the New Year's week college bowl games.

Patrice Bergeron
The NHL lockout has made Bruins center Patrice Bergeron available to Team Canada.
Most seasons, Team Canada is without several top players who are skating in the NHL ranks. Rick Nash might have been a difference-maker in Canada's gold-medal loss to Team USA last year in Helsinki. Instead, Nash was scoring his goals for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

This year, because of the lockout, Hockey Canada will have a full complement of players when the tournament begins on Dec. 25 in Grand Forks, N.D.

"The lockout definitely effects the Canadian junior team more than any one else," said Goran Stubb, the chief European scout for NHL's Central Scouting Bureau. "Every year, they lose more potential players to the NHL than any other competing nation."

Ten years ago, during the 1994-95 lockout, Canada was playing on home ice in Alberta (Red Deer, Edmonton and Calgary) and dominated the tournament, going 7-0 en route to its third of five straight gold medals. That team featured a host of future NHLers, including Jason Allison, Bryan McCabe, Eric Daze, Alexandre Daigle, Jeff Friesen, Ryan Smyth, Todd Harvey, Jeff O'Neill, Wade Redden, Darcy Tucker, Ed Jovanovski and Dan Cloutier.

"[Todd] Harvey was the leader of that team," said Tim Bernhardt, the Dallas Stars' director of amateur scouting. "And [Eric] Daze had a big tournament (team-high eight goals) and made a little more of a name for himself."

Bernhardt, a former NHL goalie who was a teammate of a baby-faced Wayne Gretzky on Canada's 1978 WJC team, said it was more than just talent that helped the '95 team to the title.

"They really came together as a group," Bernhardt said. "In a short tournament, there are no guarantees. And that team had to overcome the pressure of being a favorite on home ice in Canada. I do remember that there was a game or two in that tournament that could have went the other way."

Indeed, the Canadians needed all their weapons in high-scoring wins over the Czechs (7-5) and the Russians (8-5).

"That game against the Czechs was our toughest game," said Minnesota Wild forward Alexandre Daigle, the top overall pick in the 1993 draft who made his second WJC appearance after spending a season in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators. "I remember Jamie Rivers scoring a big goal for us in that game."

Former Calgary Flames GM Craig Button, who now scouts for the Toronto Maple Leafs, thought the game against Russia was just as tough.

"If the Russians had gotten better goaltending, they could have won that game," said Button, who was scouting for the Stars at the time. "Neither [Dan] Cloutier or [Jamie] Storr were particularly good in that tournament. But on that team, they were good enough."

Daigle, who recalled playing on a line with Harvey and Friesen, said the whole experience was fun, despite the pressure of playing in his home country.

"It was great," said Daigle. "We got to play in a couple of different cities and the buildings were packed. The tournament had a different format then (round robin throughout, no medal round), so we played a game or two after we'd clinched the gold medal. It's definitely a great memory for me."

Ironically, with all those future NHL sharpshooters on the roster, journeyman NHLer Marty Murray ended up leading the team in scoring with 15 points.

"He (Murray) was very good in that tournament," Bernhardt said. "I guess it shows you that not everybody who does well at that level goes on to become an NHL star."

With 12 players returning from last year's silver medal-winning team and the lockout-aided addition of Boston Bruins rookie sensation Patrice Bergeron, Bernhardt believes this team -- on paper -- is every bit the tournament favorite as the '95 team.

"This should be a very good team," Bernhardt said. "They'll have some big guys on defense with Dion Phaneuf (Calgary Flames) and Braydon Coburn (Atlanta Thrashers). Those guys might have been playing in the NHL this year if there were no lockout."

For scouts, who flock to this tournament every year, it will be nice to see all the best juniors -- including Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby and Russian star Alexander Ovechkin -- in one place.

"This is definitely a true World Juniors," Bernhardt said. "All the best will be there. There'll be between 20-30 future NHL stars from around the world competing in this tournament. If the lockout wipes out the season, this will be the best hockey we see on this side of the ocean this year."

EJ Hradek covers hockey for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at ej.hradek@espnmag.com. Also, click here to send EJ a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.

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