Still the one
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"I donít know what knowledgeable person would dump on Canadian skill if you only had to look at what has transpired in the last five years," he says. "Look what you saw in Salt Lake City (at the 2002 Winter Games when Canada won Olympic gold) and the players that could have been in Salt Lake City. Look at the young players who were pushing for jobs last year in the world championships. Look at the kids coming out of junior hockey and college ... the next wave of players who will be pushing for spots not only on the World Cup team but the Olympic team, it is impressive."
The skilled NHLers he's talking about includes Boston's Joe Thornton, Calgary's Jarome Iginla, Barret Jackman of the St. Louis Blues, Vince Lecavalier and Brad Richards of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jose Theodore of the Montreal Canadiens, Jay Bouwmeester and Roberto Luongo of the Florida Panthers, Eric Brewer of the Edmonton Oilers, Jason Spezza of the Ottawa Senators and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins to mention only a dozen young top-end Canadian NHLers.
And there is a huge buzz in the land of the frozen north over teenage phenom Sidney Crosby, who Wayne Gretzky has said is the best junior player he's seen since Mario Lemieux emerged on the scene. Crosby is eligible for the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.
"I think there is talent throughout the country. I think you are starting to hear about kids when they 14 and 15, like the Crosby kid," adds St. Louis Blues coach Joel Quenneville. "You don't necessarily need like a Gretzky coming along. I think the talent pool of Canadian players will still be at the high end of the League and the world. Whether they are the best or close to being the best, there are some real good kids out there and I would expect that to continue."
The reason it continues has all to do with the passion Canadians have for hockey.
Hockey is a touchstone of Canadian life. Itís Canada's National Theatre. Our icons are hockey players. Hockey is the chatter of the country, and it's more than a sport for Canadians; it is part of the country's soul.
"For our own mental security we want to think that we own this. We invented it and we look after it. It is ours and nobody is going to take it," says Toronto Maple Leaf coach Pat Quinn. "But realistically we share a beautiful game with many people in the world. I do not know where the game of soccer started, but now there are what, 180 countries that play it. And maybe the English think they invented it, but it is not their game anymore and that will happen with hockey."
As much as Canadians love the NHL game, they truly love flag vs. flag at any level the game is played.
Fair or unfair, gold is the only color that counts in Canada and Hockey Canada's Nicholson says that pressure is part and parcel of slipping the distinct Team Canada jersey on and representing this great country on the international stage.
"Our goal is to get a gold medal and those demands are good," says Nicholson. "It makes us do our homework to achieve our goal. I don't think Canadians want to come in second and we really don't want players who want to come second. We want to be on the top."
Canada went a stretch of 32 years between mining gold at the World Championship when the drought was ended in 1994 in Italy. Since then, Team Canada has won the '97 and '02 world tournaments, along with a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
"We have the respect back at the international level," says Nicholson. "Everyone wants to play Canada and see how they measure up against us."
On the home front, Canada is a world leader in development programs. When the International Ice Hockey Federation, the Zurich-based world governing body for hockey, went looking for teaching tools and development programs to help foster the growth of the game overseas, it chose Hockey Canada's programs as a model of how to get things done.
Today, there are 40 emerging hockey nations implementing programs for all age groups.
Every year the IIHF publishes a survey of its members, detailing registration numbers, how many rinks are in each country, the number of referees and other facts and figures about the game.
Canada led the way across the board for both male and female players. According to the IIHF, there were 574,125 people playing with groups affiliated with Hockey Canada in 2002-03, including 480,922 kids playing youth hockey. Canada also has 2,500 arenas, which doesn't include outdoor rinks.
Whether these stats are accurate is up for debate and your correspondent is willing to bet they are low.
However, the numbers speak for themselves.
"I do not think you will ever have to worry about Canadians losing their passion or the significance of hockey and what it means not only to the hockey fan but to Canadians in general," says Tambellini. "I think hockey is part of Canadian identity and we are very passionate about it and we are very proud about it and when we see teams wear the Canadian flag, it is important."
The last word goes to Nicholson.
When asked whether he thinks it is important that Canada remains either at the top or near the top of the heap in the world of hockey, he didn't blink when giving his reply.
"I think it is very important that Canada stays a strong part of the international hockey and the National Hockey League in all senses," he said. "We are a world leader and people look to us. It's important to the game that we remain strong."