Photo Credit: Jeff Vinnick/Hockey Canada
It's Monday morning here in Riga, Latvia, as we prepare for the crossover games that will determine the match-ups for the quarter and semi-final contests to determine which two countries will vie for the Gold medal at the 2006 Men's World Hockey Championships. Tonight Team Canada plays Team Finland, which will be Canada's toughest opponent to date. They boast a team that has 11 players returning from the strong club that went all the way to the Gold medal game at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. To put it in perspective, Team Canada does not have one player here on their roster that competed in those same Olympic games a few months ago.
After going un-defeated in their first four games, then having two days off without a game, Canada fell behind last night 3-0 in the first period against the Czech Republic. Rallying to tie it up at 4-4 early in the 3rd period, Canada nevertheless gave up two more goals and dropped it's first game of the tournament. Seldom does any team go un-defeated in this long three-week event, thus an early defeat may have been the wakeup call that every coaching staff welcomes before you get into the "sudden death" lose-and-you-go-home games.
The USA won an important game, defeating Latvia 4-2 and now will take on the Czechs in an important placement game for both teams.
Last night's game between Canada and the Czech's saw two Coyotes players square off against each other. Mike Comrie, on several occasions, was matched up against Zbynek Michalek and for me it was enjoyable to watch them compete for their national teams, trying to out-do each other. Late in the game with the score close, Zbynek got into a couple of skirmishes with players on the Canadian team, and Mike Comrie was quick to defend his own countrymenÃ¢â‚¬Â¦as it should be!
Just as he does with the Coyotes, Zbynek played 25-minutes last night, while paired alongside the Czech's best player, Thomas Kaberle. Mike Comrie, who has scored two highlight goals for Canada in this tournament, played with the two Detroit Red Wing forwards, Brendan Shanahan and Jason Williams. Canada's best player last night was 18-year old Sydney Crosby, who has captured the hearts of all the European fans over here as he leads the entire tournament in scoring. Watching him in practice every day, I marvel at the things he does to score. He has it all. Off the ice, he is doing everything right as well, trying to measure up to being the ambassador for our great sport that Wayne Gretzky was as a player for 20 years, and continues to be today.
The Russians remain un-defeated in these World Championships along with Team Finland. To add to the Finns lineup, they just yesterday had the talented Olli Jokinen from Florida join their squad. With an average age of just 23, Canada will have a real good test tonight. I'm not sure if Finland has any players that are 23 or younger, on their veteran, experienced team!
This tournament means so much to the European born and trained players. It's a real challenge for the players with Team Canada and Team USA to muster up the passion and desperation they need to, when we are so focused on The Stanley Cup being the ultimate prize in hockey. Tonight, both North American teams will need to find that urgency as we prepare for the upcoming rounds of "sudden death" elimination leading to the Gold medal game. I know one thing, playing in this tournament, in front of the European fans that are so frantic, is great experience for the young Canadian and American NHL'ers. The likes of Crosby, Jeff Carter, Brad Richards, and Dan Hamhuis for Canada, along with Phil Kesler, Dustin Brown, Ryan Malone and Ryan Suter, will all be playing for these same national teams in 2010 at the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, B.C.
It won't come as any surprise to me to see the Coyotes own Keith Ballard on Team USA's blueline in Vancouver. Had Keith not required post-season surgery, he would have been a prominent piece of the much-improved Team USA team that is here in Latvia. Knowing Keith, he's probably regretting that he is missing the chance to line up Mike Comrie and Zbynek Michalek with their heads down over here-and they would be welcoming the chance to slip by him and bury one in the USA net! Needless to say, it's a lot of fun to watch the NHL'ers compete in this format.