World championship is selling itself to NHLers
INNSBRUCK, Austria -- Don Waddell clearly remembers skulking outside NHL arenas in the springtime, hoping to confront a U.S.-born player or two who had refused to return his phone calls about playing in the IIHF world hockey championship in a distant European city.
"It was embarrassing," said Waddell, the general manager of this year's U.S. entry. "They'd hear I was out there waiting for them, and they'd go out a different door. They just didn't want to deal with it."
A surprising bronze medal last year in Prague, however, might have been the latest step in a gradual process that has more and more American NHLers interested in competing in the prestigious event.
It's a tournament that has always had a different flavor to North Americans. But now Americans and Canadians, it seems, are starting to like the taste.
Traditionally the exclusive preserve of European-based pros and NHLers from teams that either didn't make the Stanley Cup playoffs or were knocked out in the first round, this year's event is entirely different only because, theoretically, every country had access to its best talent because of the NHL lockout.
Sadly, not all those players came, or this might well have gone down as one of the finest best-on-best hockey tournaments ever played. Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla declined to play for Canada, and countries such as Finland and Sweden are missing top-drawer talent.
That said, this tournament is always an enormous spectator and television draw in Europe; hordes of Canadian journalists have flooded to Austria after NHL rinks were dark all winter; and it is widely being viewed, particularly in North America, as a chance to end one of the lousiest hockey seasons in memory with a bang.
"The players understand there won't be a Stanley Cup winner this season," Canadian coach Marc Habscheid said. "That means this year's tournament has a stature different from other years."
Seven members of the U.S. team from last September's World Cup, including Mike Modano and Doug Weight, are here in this historic alpine city, which is holding the event along with the Austrian capital of Vienna.
The Americans, playing out of the same pool as their archrivals from Canada, are based in Innsbruck now with the dream of making it to Vienna late next week for a possible shot at a gold medal.
Waddell invited mostly NHLers who had been playing in Europe all season rather than longtime stars like Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk and Brian Leetch. He also added three players who are not NHLers forward Yan Stastny, defenseman Andy Roach and blueliner Brett Hauer and Tuesday added up-and-coming blueliner Ryan Suter after his AHL team in Milwaukee was eliminated from the playoffs.
"We don't have to beg anymore," he said. "The image of this tournament is changing for the American player, and last year really helped. When we finished seventh, eighth and ninth every year, nobody looked forward to this."
Canada, which faces the United States in a round-robin game Thursday, has won the last two titles, but four other countries have captured the event in the past decade (Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and this year's competition is viewed as a fairly wide-open contest.
Unlike the World Cup, this is played on the larger international ice surface, which produces a different brand of hockey and allows smaller European countries to compete more effectively. The tiny Baltic nation of Latvia, for example, gave both Canada and the United States tough tests this week.
The 16-team event also includes the host Austrians, Slovenia, Ukraine and Denmark, countries that would not normally have the opportunity to test their hockey programs against the world's best.
"It is a huge experience for us to get the chance to play against all the big NHL stars," said Slovenian forward Anze Kopitar, a 17-year-old viewed as a viable prospect by NHL scouts.
The passion of fans from those countries is infectious, and the more than 3,000 Latvians, with their chanting and drum-beating, have been a sensation here.
"They are the best," said Latvian national and longtime NHL goalie Arturs Irbe. "You must realize [Latvia] is a country with a very small [gross domestic product]. These people basically save all year for the worlds. This is their vacation."
While the Olympic tournament has been shrunk to fit the demands of the NHL schedule in 1998 and 2002, this is a long, demanding tourney in which teams have to play nine games in 15 days to win.
Moreover, because hundreds of NHLers went to Europe this season, there is a new appreciation, particularly among North American players, for the Euro-game and the demands of this event.
"I loved it," Thornton said. "The whole team was excited that we were there. The whole league was excited. They said this was the best hockey they'd ever seen.
"The bottom line is I'm a hockey player. I wouldn't have wanted to stay at home and read the news every day of what was going on [with the NHL collective bargaining talks]. It was a great experience for me."
Roach, a native of Kalamazoo, Mich., was never drafted by an NHL team and spent the last five years in Europe, mostly in Germany. Last year, he scored the shootout goal against Slovakia that won bronze for the United States, and a month later signed his first NHL deal, a two-year agreement with the St. Louis Blues.
"I've really enjoyed the last five years playing over here," said Roach, a one-time star at Ferris State. "I like the game better over here. It's more entertaining, I feel."
While a Canada-U.S. game is always an intriguing match, the two teams meet with, really, mostly pride on the line. Both countries have beaten Latvia and Slovenia and have already qualified for the next round of competition.
Modano suffered a bruised biceps against Latvia on Tuesday, but is expected to play. The Americans already lost forward Matt Cullen, to a knee injury during their pre-tournament visit to Germany, and it's possible former U.S. national junior team star and New Jersey draft pick Zach Parise could be added in the next few days.
Although Modano did not play for any team this season, Weight went to Germany in late February for the end of the regular season and playoffs just to get himself playing in anticipation of this tournament.
"I'm 34. I couldn't let myself go a whole year without playing," Weight said. "You can only work out so much."
Suddenly, the world championship is a more attractive proposition for Americans for a variety of reasons.
For Waddell, it just means not having to beg any more.Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.