|NHL.com: Impact Magazine|
|Despite whispers to the contrary, Canada proved it is still the world's foremost hockey power with a convincing gold-medal performance at the 2002 Olympic games in Salt Lake City.|
It's not easy to raise Steve Tambellini's ire.
But if you want to, just mention the notion that Canada has lost its prestige in a) the National Hockey League, and b) on the world stage.
That will definitely get you Tambellini's attention.
"That's nonsense," says Tambellini, the director of player personnel for the Vancouver Canucks. "Whoever says stuff like that does not know what they are talking about."
The facts support Tambellini.
From Salt Lake City to Helsinki and many points in between, Canadian hockey reigns supreme.
It has been quite the run atop the podium for Canada during the last two years, and no other hockey nation came close to casting such an imposing shadow over the global hockey map.
The string of success began with men's and women's gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. It continued on until last May when Canada won the 2003 World Championship gold medal in Helsinki. Five impressive tournament championships happened in between.
A select under-18 team won gold at the Eight Nations tournament in Slovakia, in August, 2002.
A women's select team won the Four Nations Cup tournament in Kitchener, Ont., in November, 2002.
|New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur is among the best players Canada has produced, winning a gold medal as Canada's No. 1 goalie at the 2002 Olympics to go along with his three Stanley Cup rings.|
Canadian pros playing in Europe and other players picked up from minor-league clubs in North America won the Deutschland Cup in Hanover, Germany, in November of '02, and a similar group won the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland, a month later.
The under-18 men's national squad emerged victorious at the world championship in Yaroslav, Russia, last April.
The National Women's Team, 35-0 in winning seven straight world titles, missed the chance to make it eight straight when the 2003 Women's Worlds in Beijing was cancelled due to health concerns. The women will defend their world title at the 2004 championship tournament in Halifax in April.
The only major piece of international silverware not in Canada's trophy case was the 2003 World Junior crown. Russia defeated Canada by one goal in each of the last two finals, including a heart-breaking 3-2 loss at the '03 World Junior in Halifax last January. But you could hardly consider a silver-medal performance a blemish.
"As difficult as it is to win a championship, it's harder to stay on top once you are there," says Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson. "It doesn't mean we can sit back and rest on our laurels."
And what the impressive run has shown people is that Canada produces skilled players at all levels of the game. Canada's perch atop the podium also answers many of the questions raised about the state of Canada's development system which were raised by the Open Ice Summit in 1998.
The summit was a by-product of losing the 1996 World Cup of Hockey to the United States and the general consensus was that the Canadian development system was in need of not so much an overhaul as a jump-start.
The results speak for themselves.
Besides the world stage, consider Canada's place on the NHL map.
Canada always has been the most dominant producer of players for NHL teams. There was a time when NHL teams were 100 percent Canadian tried and tested, but those days ended when the League expanded from the Original Six teams to the 30 clubs that dot the NHL map these days.
|Still a youngster, Florida defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is already among a new generation of elite players ready to represent Canada in future international competitions, including perhaps this summer's World Cup of Hockey.|
Expansion meant the need for more talent, and hockey was no different than any other industry in that it went global and sought out players in Europe. Critics point to a parallel demise in Canada's share of the NHL pie, given the abundance of talent in Europe and the desire of Europeans to want to play in the best league in the world.
But Canada remained in the majority and they have not relinquished that spot atop the perch.
This season, 52.1 percent of the players on opening-night rosters were Canadians. That number was down marginally from last season (53.6), but most important from a Canadian perspective is that it seems to have levelled off after a couple years of being in decline.
Tambellini points to the role Canadians are playing on NHL clubs to drive home the point that Canada is still producing skilled players.
|Boston's Joe Thornton, a native of Ontario, is among the vanguard of current star Canadian players. The former No. 1 pick is the captain and unquestioned leader of the Bruins.|
"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."
|Not eligible until the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Canadian phenom Sidney Crosby is already earning comparisons to Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, two of the greatest Canadian players to ever play in the NHL.|
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.
|Canada's national team for women players owns the international scene with its latest glory coming in a gold-medal performance at the 2002 Winter Olympics,|
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."