Even with the CBC’s 24/7 Olympics coverage, hockey remains foremost in the Canadian sporting psyche. In between the badminton and the diving, the swimming and the boxing, there are no less than three rotating ad spots dedicated to Canada’s official winter sport: one plugging CBC’s hockey reality show, Making the Cut; a Royal Bank ad featuring the 1948 gold-medal-winning RCAF hockey team; and, of course, promotions for the World Cup broadcast.
And why not give hockey some airtime? With our dismal medal count, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that we do excel at one sport. And besides, we may not see much hockey after mid-September because of the NHL’s lingering labour dispute. With that in mind, I’m going to ignore the cynicism that is fast becoming the lead story at 2004’s World Cup of Hockey and think happy thoughts.
It has been written that this is a tournament designed to showcase a Team Canada victory. Indeed, there isn’t likely to be an us-against-the-world speech this September from Wayne Gretzky, the team’s architect, nor will a secretly placed “lucky loonie” be needed. Canada is the only country with all home games (Russia and Slovakia will have none), the only country with an all-star goalie willing to play and, in fact, the only country that could ice two teams, with either one being a threat to win. So it’s going to be a love-in—but be warned: anything but a Canadian victory at this tournament will cause another round of nationwide hockey-related soul-searching, similar to the one that set in when Calgary lost the Stanley Cup to Tampa Bay. Plus, a win by a non-Canadian team will make the impending NHL strike seem longer and darker.
Oh, sorry. Happy thoughts, happy thoughts.
Here is a rundown of the teams, from worst to first:
All the happy thoughts in the world won’t save the German team in this tournament. In fact, I’m not sure why they were even invited. Germany’s never been a hockey power, and on any given day it could be beaten by Switzerland or even Belarus (did the Belarussians’ performance at Salt Lake not warrant them a berth in WCH 2004?). The Germans might have had an outside shot at beating Slovakia, but that part of the former Czechoslovakia is playing in the North American division, while the Germans will play (and likely lose) all their games in Europe.
Don’t get me wrong, the Slovaks ice a decent squad. Their goaltending is suspect, though. As much as I’m excited to see fellow St. Mike’s alum Peter Budaj in such a high-profile setting, he is going to get shelled. He might get a little help from Zdeno Chara, the biggest, baddest D-man in the NHL, who has a bit of experience clearing the front of the net, but even with Z on D and Marian Hossa, Miro Satan, Pavol Demitra and young star Marian Gaborik up front, the Slovaks won’t fare too well.
They just might beat the Russians, though. Despite having a truly scary forward corps (Yashin, Kovalchuk, Kovalev, Ovechkin, Kozlov, Samsonov—yikes!), their defence is pretty ordinary when compared to the rest of the teams in the tournament, and their goaltenders are minor league. That is going to hurt them, as will Sergei Fedorov’s withdrawal from play because of a few minor injuries he is still nursing.
Back in the European division, it’s a tough call, but I think Sweden will falter. I say this only because I think Finland will steal a victory with Kiprusoff in goal, and the Czechs will be inspired by the recent unfortunate passing of their head coach, Ivan Hlinka. The Swedes have no weaknesses that I can see (other than Daniel Alfredsson). With a defence anchored by Nicklas Lidström and Mattias Öhlund, and with Forsberg, Sundin and Zetterberg (okay, and Alfredsson too) up front, they should do well, but I just have a feeling something weird will happen.
The Finns have Miikka Kiprusoff in goal (along with Vesa Toskala and Kari Lehtonen—two goalies who might well be better than “Kipper,” though they haven’t had a chance to play full-time in the NHL yet) and some solid young players up front. Olli Jokinen’s speed will cause problems. Speaking of problems, the only hole in the Finnish defence might be Aki Berg, though apparently some people have a thing for number eight.
The USA is going with almost the same team that won them the World Cup in 1996, which could be good or bad news. Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk are certainly the best of the red, white and blue, but they are also on the downside of their careers. Hull’s recent contract with Phoenix is a boon for him—not because of the money, but because it will give him two more years to try to catch Gordie Howe as the NHL’s second all-time leading scorer. The American defence, with Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Eric Weinrich on patrol, will be solid but, again, “experienced.” Their goaltenders are a spryer set, but this is where the US will stumble against the top teams, Canada and the Czech Republic. Robert Esche will be the number one goalie: while he has the potential to be solid, he is not a star (yet). Rick DiPietro and Ty Conklin are younger and, though unproven, they’ve shown flashes of being unbeatable.
If the Czechs start Roman Cechmanek (Esche’s former Philadelphia teammate) in goal, maybe the US will have a shot—but also on the Czech roster is Martin Prusek, the only Ottawa Senator who I really like. Sadly, Prusek will be relegated to the backup role again this NHL season (there will be a season) as the Sens have signed the best Czech goalie not playing in this tournament, Dominik Hasek. In any case, if the Czechs want to go anywhere, they’ll need Prusek in goal. Their offence is powered by Jaromir Jagr, but they also have two other forty-goal scorers to call on: Milan Hejduk and Martin Straka. In addition, the Czech defence is reasonably offensive-minded, with both Kaberle brothers, Detroit’s Jiri Fischer and Nashville’s Marek Zidlicky riding the blue line.
I realize I’m in an optimistic mood, but looking at the rosters of all the other teams, it’s hard to imagine Canada not winning this tournament. A quick look at Canada’s line combinations shows just how dangerous this team is. Simon Gagné, Joe Sakic and Jarome Iginla form the top line, as they did with so much success at the 2002 Olympics; Iginla’s playoff experience will only add to that chemistry. The second line has Mario Lemieux centring NHL MVP Martin St. Louis and his Tampa Bay teammate Brad Richards. This so-called second line has the best player in the NHL on a line with one of the best players of all time. Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau form another line, which would easily be the number-one power play unit on any NHL team (except maybe Colorado), and they are third on the depth chart! Offensively, Ryan Smyth, Vincent Lecavalier and Brenden Morrow are ranked next, but they may sit out in favour of defensive specialists Shane Doan, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby. On defence, Team Canada has eight powerful rearguards, but only six will play. Chris Pronger and Rob Blake dropped out due to injury, but the team added Scott Hannan and Jay Bouwmeester. Goalies Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Jose Theodore are all from Montreal, and any of them could steal the show.
But perhaps the best indication of the quality of this team is the players who won’t be on the ice. Start with the above-mentioned line that may have to sit out. Add Cory Stillman, Alex Tanguay, Steve Sullivan, Mark Messier, Daniel Brière, Steve Yzerman (who was on the team, but pulled out with an injury) and Vincent Damphousse. Two of the eight defencemen won’t play, and the rest of the “shadow squad” could include Dan Boyle, Brad Stuart, Sheldon Souray and Bryan McCabe. Goalies left off the team include the injured Ed Belfour, Marty Turco, Dan Cloutier, Andrew Raycroft and Manny Legace.
With talent like this, Pat Quinn should just keep the lucky loonie in his wallet.