Messier’s major challenge

Motherland of hockey often slumps at Worlds in Olympic years

26.03.2010
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After silver last year, Mark Messier hopes to build on the Olympic gold. Photo: Matthew Murnaghan / HHOF-IIHF Images

During his playing career, Mark Messier was often called one of the greatest leaders in sports. As the 49-year-old NHL legend starts assembling his roster as Canada's 2010 World Championship GM, he has a major chance to enhance that reputation.

Messier's ability to convince players to don the red Maple Leaf in Germany will be critical, as Hockey Canada is seeking to emulate Sweden's 2006 example and become the second nation ever to win Olympic and World Championship gold in the same year.

A month after Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal in overtime to defeat the U.S. in the Olympic final in Vancouver, Canadians are still riding a wave of euphoria. And sometimes that euphoria can blur perspectives.

For instance, a March 24 TSN.ca article about Crosby's rivalry with Alexander Ovechkin proclaimed that the “score” was now “Sid 2, Ovi 0.” Why? “With a gold medal-winning performance at last month's Winter Olympics in Vancouver paired with a Stanley Cup ring earned last season, Sidney Crosby holds a two-title advantage over his Russian rival Alexander Ovechkin.”

Of course, a quick refresher on the criteria for admission to the IIHF's Triple Gold Club would reveal that, in fact, the “score” is now “Sid 2, Ovie 1.” That's because Ovechkin won gold at the 2008 IIHF World Championship when Russia beat Canada 5-4 in the final in Quebec City; Crosby has yet to capture a world title.

Still, the article is reflective of the mindset of many Canadian hockey journalists and fans.

In contrast, Messier had better hope that the Canadian players he invites to suit up in Mannheim this May haven't forgotten about the importance of representing their country, even if they've already laced up skates for the Olympic team.

The Swedish federation didn't have too much difficulty luring stars to Riga for the Worlds after the Olympic triumph in Turin: eight players suited up for both those teams, including Detroit Red Wings stars like Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, and Mikael Samuelsson.

Yet despite its great depth, Canada hasn't always been as successful at icing its usual high-caliber World Championship squad after a Winter Games. In fact, since capturing its first Olympic gold in 50 years in Salt Lake City 2002, Canada has only failed to crack the World Championship final on two occasions: 2002 and 2006, both Olympic years.

In 2002, some 60 players turned down Team Canada GM Lanny McDonald's invitation to join the national side in Sweden. With a watered-down roster, Canada was eliminated by the eventual champions from Slovakia in the quarter-finals. In 2006, GM Ken Holland managed to attract a handful of name-brand stars, including an 18-year-old Crosby, who won the tournament scoring title with 16 points, and veteran power forward Brendan Shanahan. But it wasn't enough, as Canada lost to Sweden in the semi-finals and then surrendered bronze to the Finns.

This year, the Canadians can and should do better with their roster picks. Regardless of the force of Messier's personality, there are two major considerations that should expand the pool of available Canadian talent.

First, the NHL playoff picture is already clearer at this stage than it was, for instance, last year. In 2008-09, no team was some 30 points out of post-season contention, as the Edmonton Oilers are currently. And in both the Eastern and Western Conferences, many clubs are seven points or more out of a playoff spot, a daunting gap to make up.

If this trend persists, it'll open the door for Messier to extend invitations to top-flight players earlier than he might have otherwise. Even if he encounters reluctance from veterans, stars aged 25 and under that could be available include the likes of Columbus's Rick Nash, Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Carolina's Eric Staal, and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos. Such players would all be expected to log big minutes if their clubs made it to the Stanley Cup dance.

Second, the World Championship kicks off later than usual this year. The first round of the NHL playoffs will be completely finished by the time Canada opens versus Italy on May 8. That means Messier can contact personnel from 22 out of the 30 NHL clubs.

It would be a shame for Canada to take an unnecessary step backwards right after hosting and winning what most observers regard as the greatest hockey tournament of all time. Surely it would grate on Messier personally: he settled for silver in his lone World Championship as a player (1989), and the last time he made headlines in connection with an IIHF tournament was when he was excluded from the ill-fated 1998 Olympic team in favour of defensive specialist Rob Zamuner.

LUCAS AYKROYD


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