- George Johnson, NHL
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CALGARY, Alberta – Rewind to an uncharacteristically warm February 1988. The wound was so fresh, so deep. An overhyped Canadian Olympic team had just been cruelly, clinically exposed 5-1 by the Big Red Russian Machine, by Larionov and Krutov and Makarov and Kasatonov and Fetisov and the rest, in a game an entire country stood still to watch.
It was a painful comeuppance.
Captain Marc Habscheid, understanding his duty, slowly emerged from the team bus, idling for a quick getaway in the parking lot behind the Olympic Saddledome in Calgary. His eyes were red and scratchy. He spoke haltingly, the catch in his throat apparent.
The intense ache, so apparent, made conversation awkward.
But he did his duty. He always did his duty, eating those boxed lunches, playing for next to nothing in order to wear the colors of his country in a country that only paid attention to his overriding passion for about six months every four years; a country hooked on the glamor and money of the NHL.
"Whenever you put on that jersey," he is now saying, 17 years later, facing a horde of media at Father David Bauer Arena, not just one or two stragglers waiting in a parking lot, "it hurts to lose. It should hurt to lose. We're Canada, doesn't matter who we play, what the odds [are]. And, looking back to '88, we had no business thinking we could beat a team like that.
"Still, we lost, and it hurt. It should hurt to lose.''
Others have worn the Maple Leaf with more distinction. None, it's quite safe to say, with more pride.
Which is only a part of why Habscheid, and none of the household names, any of the usual suspects – Pat Quinn, Ken Hitchcock, Mike Keenan, Jacques Martin, Scotty Bowman, etc., etc. – is running the Canadian entry in this year's world championship. A tournament that in the throes of the never-ending labor dispute will be afforded even more stature in the eyes of hockey-mad Canadians in dire need of a fix.
So a lot of eyebrows were arched in surprise when the Hall of Fame names were bypassed in favor of the full-time coach for Canada's in-name-only national hockey program.
The safe call, the easy call, would have been one of the legends. Habscheid knows that better than anyone else.
"Those are great coaches, heavyweight names, for sure," he says. "No, I've never coached in the NHL. No, I've never really coached NHL players before. But I have confidence in myself and my abilities.
"This is not about me. It never has been. That's not the way I coach.
"The national team has been a very special part of my life. I believe in the team concept. It's in my contract [to coach the worlds], but I never wanted to hold anyone hostage. If they wanted me to coach this team – and I wanted to do it, believe me – great. If they had wanted someone else, I would've understood. I could've accepted it. I like to think my ego isn't that big.
"I told them that.
"I left it entirely up to them."
So he met with Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicolson early in the process, made his case, and sat back to wait for the word.
When the word came, it was what he wanted to hear.
So, for the uninitiated, who is Marc Habscheid, anyway? Well, he's 42, bumped around from Edmonton to Detroit, Minnesota to Calgary during 11 NHL seasons, playing 345 games.
"Safe to say," he notes self-deprecatingly, "I'm not going into the Hall of Fame."
As a coach, he's steadily climbed the ladder, taking Canada to a world junior silver medal (2003) and the Western Hockey League Kelowna Rockets to the Memorial Cup championship (2004). His understanding of the international game is vast, and he learned from one of the masters of big-ice hockey, Dave King.
Habscheid isn't sure whether his rookie status coaching pro players will require a bit of a learning curve. He only understands there is a job to be done.
On a team that is shifting to a new wave, he is the new-wave coach.
"This," emphasizes Canadian general manager Steve Tambellini, "is a great coach. Someone who has coached at the world juniors. In the Memorial Cup. Someone who has the ability to coach in the NHL, will coach in the NHL. This is a passionate person, about the game and the program, not a self-promoter, not someone who has to see himself on TV to verify his worth.
"He has a great tone with these guys. He's not intimidated. He is absolutely the right person for this job."
Habscheid's staff agrees.
"Yes, I think it is important that there's a direct link to the national team program involved,'' says New York Rangers coach Tom Renney, a former Canadian national team boss assisting Habscheid for this Worlds. "Marc lived the program. He loves it. He's a humble guy but he's developed into a fine coach.
"There's no issues or awkwardness involved. We're all in this for one reason.
"This is a special assignment for him. And that makes it special for myself and MacT, too."
In cushioning Habscheid with two very different NHL head coaches – Craig MacTavish, whose transformed the Edmonton Oilers into a gutsy, high-tempo team, and Renney, one the strongest technical coaches around – Tambellini, Nicolson and the rest of the Hockey Canada brass hopes to make the transition as smooth as possible.
Still, if they didn't believe he could make the tough decisions on his own, he wouldn't be here.
"In the end, it's still Marc Habscheid's call,'' stresses Tambellini. "Same as in Salt Lake City. Ken Hitchcock, Jacques Martin and Wayne Fleming all had input, were extremely important to the end result. But there was only one head coach. In the end, it was Pat Quinn's team.
"Tom and Craig are going to be great support for him.
"But this is Marc Habscheid's team.
"And, we firmly believe, this is Marc Habscheid's time."
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
3dMichael Better and Elliott Parshall