February 25, 2006
TURIN, Italy (CP) -- In the aftermath of Team Canada's disappointing exit in the quarter-finals, Wayne Gretzky said Canadians should cherish the gold medal won in Salt Lake City because it's far from a guaranteed outcome in the men's Olympic tournament.
There's no better proof of that than Sunday's gold medal game between Sweden and Finland (CBC, 8 a.m. ET), which will make it six different countries in the Olympic final since the NHL began participating in 1998.
"I said even before this tournament that I thought seven teams could win this and I really believed that,'' Swedish star winger Daniel Alfredsson said Saturday after practice.
"It's that close now, especially in a short tournament like this,'' added the Ottawa Senators captain. "If you had a best-of-seven series then you probably have Canada and the Czechs on top, but in a short tournament like this, anything can happen.''
It's been that kind of tournament.
Slovakia beat Russia and Sweden, but was knocked out by the Czechs; Russia beat Sweden and Canada, but was eliminated by Finland; the Swiss stunned the Czechs and Canada before ending their run against Sweden; and the Swedes lost to Russia and Slovakia, but took care of the Czechs.
A different day, a different result.
"I think it says that the gap between the No. 1 team and the No. 8 team is not very big,'' veteran Finnish winger Teemu Selanne said on the eve of the biggest hockey game in his country's history. "Almost all the big countries' players are from the NHL, we compete against those guys on a daily basis. So from now on, I think it's going to be a matter of who wants it more, who is going to play better as a team, and who is the hotter team for two weeks.
"If it was a seven-game series, it would be a total different tournament,'' added the Anaheim Mighty Ducks star. "But it's not and I knew coming in that there would be a lot of surprises. And that's what has happened.''
Canada and the Czechs were considered the pre-tournament favourites, but the truth is that everybody knew it was a virtual toss-up among the top countries.
"I think it's great,'' Swedish and Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin said. "You don't know who's going to win. The National Hockey League is very competitive with a lot of different nationality's and I think it shows in a tournament like this.''
Swedish head coach Bengt Gustafsson, who will see his team in the final for the first time since winning gold against Canada at Lillehammer in 1994, figures that with seven countries capable of winning a gold medal it's not realistic to expect to win it every time.
"Once every 30 years, you're doing pretty good,'' Gustafsson said.
And it's only going to get tougher.
Switzerland, Germany, Latvia and Kazakhstan are pushing the envelope. Not too far behind are Ukraine, Belarus, Denmark and Austria.
"The hockey world is getting bigger, no doubt about it,'' said Gustafsson. "The so-called lower countries are getting close to the big ones. Right behind the seven or eight big countries are countries that can beat anybody on any given day if you're not playing 100 per cent.''
Finnish captain Saku Koivu says the NHL's influence on Europe has helped bridge the gap.
"A lot of European guys -- more than ever -- are playing in the NHL so the differences between the countries aren't that big anymore compared to 10-15 years ago,'' the Montreal Canadiens captain said Saturday. "It just shows how competitive hockey is at the top level right now. It makes it tougher on us, the players, but it makes it more interesting for fans.''
So what does Canada do to keep winning its share? It must continue to encourage its young NHL players to devote themselves to the world championship every spring if their team is out of the playoffs or knocked out early. Their apprenticeship on the big ice and on European soil can't be underestimated.
This year's tournament goes May 5-21 in Riga and it's paramount for Hockey Canada to have the likes of Sidney Crosby from Pittsburgh, Rick Nash from Columbus as well as the Anaheim trio of Corey Perry, Joffrey Lupul and Ryan Getzlaf if the Ducks are out. And there are many more.
The message should be clear to all the young Canadian stars: if you want to have a chance to play at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, get on a plane to Europe every spring.