- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Canadian Olympic leader and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman invited 46 Canadian players to a pre-Olympic get-together in Calgary this summer.
That's 12 more than his American counterpart Brian Burke invited to the U.S. camp, which will be held the week before in Chicago. And it's exactly twice the number Yzerman and the rest of the Canadian Olympic brain trust will actually take to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics in February.
And all that means is Yzerman et al still must answer questions about the 50 or so quality players that weren't invited to the camp.
Why Sakic Was Invited
One of the most curious invitees for the Canadian Olympic orientation camp is a player who doesn't even know if he's going to put on the blades at all this year: Joe Sakic.
But it is a measure of the respect for Sakic's pedigree, and the integrity of Canadian Olympic executive director Steve Yzerman and Hockey Canada, that the veteran forward was extended an invitation, even though a decision on whether he will retire or not has not yet been made public.
Yzerman said he recently called Sakic and, without prying about his decision, told him he wanted Sakic at camp.
Sakic, a three-time Olympian who was captain of the ill-fated 2006 squad in Torino, will turn 40 next week. He played only 15 games last season, scoring twice before injuries, including a freak accident with a snowblower, ended his season and perhaps his career.
Even if Sakic returns to action this season, it's difficult to imagine he would make the final cut for the 2010 team. But just as Scott Stevens and others were invited to the camp in 2002 before Canada won its first gold medal in 50 years, having Sakic around for a few days this summer will be a living classroom for the many young players who will attend the camp.
-- Scott Burnside
Such is life in Canada, where, as we all know, life is hockey. And when the Olympics are on your home soil, it is -- well -- life or death.
For Yzerman and the rest of the management and coaching staff, the decision-making process that started with naming this 46-man group Thursday and that will end by Dec. 31 with the naming of the final 23-man roster, it will be both the experience and the challenge of a lifetime.
"The tournament is going to be as good as it's ever been," 2010 Canada coach Mike Babcock said Thursday when Hockey Canada unveiled its camp invitees.
It's important, then, the team's managers and coaches do a good job of not just preparing the team for the Olympics, but also selecting the right group, Babcock noted. That would seem to go without saying, but in Canada, the coming weeks and months will be chock-full of palaver over who should stay or go, and that palavering started Thursday at about 10:01 a.m. ET. You see, people will suggest over and over that you could ice two, maybe three, competitive Canadian Olympic teams because the depth of talent in the country is so good.
Heck, you could ice a team that might win a gold medal with the players that weren't invited to this orientation camp, starting with Chris Osgood and/or Marty Turco in goal and including Marc Savard, fourth among all Canadians in NHL points last season, Mike Cammalleri, who was third among all Canadians with 39 goals, rising rookie star Steven Stamkos, Mike Ribeiro, Ray Whitney, Brad Boyes, Jason Spezza, Sheldon Souray, Brian Campbell and former Olympians Rob Blake, Brad Richards, Bryan McCabe, Ed Jovanovski and Todd Bertuzzi.
While it is part of Yzerman's job as Olympic executive director to answer questions about those who weren't invited to the camp and who won't be named to the final roster – and, to his credit, he does so patiently and without rancor -- it really isn't his concern.
His concern is the ongoing process that began with the whittling down of a list from the low 50s to 46 to the eventual 23. (Stamkos, for the record, was one of the last ones left off the orientation camp list when the coaches and managers met in Montreal at the draft last weekend, Yzerman said.)
It is a process of wading through an embarrassment of hockey riches to come up with one gold-medal team. Not the most talented team or the team with the most international experience, but a gold-medal team. It might seem like semantics, but anyone who watched the Canadians implode in the 2006 Torino Games, fail to get to the medal round and fail to produce anything resembling a cohesive offensive attack, will know that semantics or not, having a lot of good players guarantees you nothing at the Olympic level.
Dividing the line between good and gold means turning over a lot of rocks and opening a lot of doors that most lay people might not consider.
That's why the Canadian orientation camp includes players like Daniel Cleary, Milan Lucic, Derek Roy, Francois Beauchemin, Stephane Robidas and Patrick Sharp. Asked about a number of those players, Yzerman said they weren't interested in having four lines with the same type of player.
Cleary, for instance, can play all three forward positions and, during the past couple of years, showed he is as comfortable playing on the top line with skilled players as he is playing a checking role on a third line, not to mention working on both the power play and penalty kill.
"He's a versatile guy that had a very, very good playoff," Yzerman said of Cleary, who, with Detroit, won a Cup in 2007-08 and lost to Pittsburgh in the Cup finals last month.
Speaking of the Penguins and winning in the clutch, three Cup-winning Pens will be at this camp. Sidney Crosby, of course, along with checking center Jordan Staal, who saved his best hockey of the playoffs for the Cup finals, and netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who won four of his past five games to help bring home a Cup. Yzerman acknowledged Fleury's play in the finals was essentially his ticket to this camp.
Conversely, players who haven't or can't answer the bell should find themselves in a precarious position when it comes to being a part of this Canadian team.
This would seem to include players like Dany Heatley, whose invitation to the camp is certainly based on past international performances, not the current fiasco of his own making that has him in limbo between being an Ottawa Senator and someone else. Heatley has failed to deliver in his past two postseasons and endured a grisly Olympic tournament in 2006.
Joe Thornton, whose inability to lead a talented San Jose team anywhere but out of the playoffs at the first sign of trouble, is in the same boat.
Yzerman and Babcock both insisted the Calgary gathering isn't a tryout, but with one out of every two players figuring to be on the outside looking in when the dust clears in December, you can bet the pace will be frenetic from the outset. As it should be.
The fact that the 46 players will be divided into two teams and will actually play an exhibition game to close out the camp suggests there is no time like the present to try to separate yourself from the pack in front of the management and coaching staff.
If there is a message that should be gleaned from this curious camp lineup, it's that there are two or three players for every position, for every role. Play well at camp and then light it up at the start of the 2009-10 NHL season and you're likely going to wear red and white in Vancouver. Fail to do so at your peril.
"Being at the top of your game is really, really important," Babcock said.
Here's betting the 46 guys who got the call Thursday plan on doing just that. If they do, pity poor Yzerman and his staff in trying to make sure they make the right call.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
3dBonnie D. Ford