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Plenty for Canada to take from worlds when preparing for 2010 Olympics @NHLdotcom

QUEBEC - Let the countdown to the Games begin.

The dry run ended in disappointing fashion with Canada's loss in the gold medal final at the IIHF World Hockey Championship, but there's plenty to be taken from here and applied to preparation for the Olympic hockey tournament in Vancouver two years down the road.

In the wake of Sunday's 5-4 overtime loss to Russia, Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock was asked by a foreign reporter if the defeat signalled a changing of the guard in international hockey.

"No," Hitchcock replied flatly, pausing for effect. "Because we've got good players. We've got good players on the horizon.

"We all know that the Olympics are the measuring stick. We all know that. If you're talking about world power, you're talking about supremacy in hockey, you talk about the Olympics."

To that end, this Canadian team did the Olympic squad a favour by regaining top spot in the world ranking. As top seed, Canada will play the U.S., Switzerland and last-place qualifier in the early part of the 2010 Games - meaning it won't face a power like Russia, Sweden or the Czech Republic before the quarter-finals.

That will be helpful when one of the biggest international hockey tournaments ever held in this country gets underway.

It's sure to be an exciting event. There was no shortage of skill at this world championship but the Russians will undoubtedly have the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk with them at the Olympics. It's hard to imagine Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier not wearing the Maple Leaf in Vancouver and none of those guys played at this world championship.

"When you get it together in the Olympics and everyone's there, that's the measuring stick," said Hitchcock.

Even with Sunday's loss, it's clear that Canada is in the midst of a renaissance at this event. A Canadian team has played in five of the last six gold medal games and a young team led by Crosby in 2006 fell one goal short of making it 6-for-6.

The reason for the successful run can be linked to the 2002 world championship in Sweden, where nearly 100 players declined invitations to play for Canada just two months after the country won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City. That was a devastating blow for GM Lanny McDonald and he marvels at how far the world championship program has come in the years since.

"I think it was actually a blessing," said McDonald. "I'd like to think that we paved the way in some small way."

Only a handful of players took a pass this time around as Canada hosted this event for the first time ever.

More than 477,000 fans took in games in Halifax and Quebec City, making this the third-best attended world championship in history. This tournament usually struggles for attention in Canada because it is played against the NHL playoffs but it's clear that many fans warmed to it over the past few weeks.

Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson admitted to being surprised that some of Canada's early games weren't sold out at the Metro Centre in Halifax but that was pretty much forgotten by the time the gold medal game was played at Le Colisee Pepsi in Quebec. A sellout crowd that included Prime Minister Stephen Harper created an atmosphere that will rival what is seen at the 2010 Olympics.

Having the chance to play in that kind of situation will be beneficial to many down the road.

"It's a real learning experience for our younger players to understand how to deal with the pressure of playing at home," said Hitchcock.

There should be optimism. The top Canadian line dominated this event and Dany Heatley, Rick Nash and Ryan Getzlaf will probably all find themselves getting invitations to Vancouver in 2010.

On defence, Mike Green followed up an impressive season in the NHL with a good world championship and was added to the tournament all-star team along with Nash and Heatley. Defenceman Brent Burns also did himself a favour with a two-goal performance in the gold medal game. Expect him to be part of the conversation when the Olympic team is selected.

Even goalie Cam Ward will likely receive some consideration after playing well in his second straight gold medal game. The biggest obstacle for him is the fact that stalwarts Roberto Luongo, Martin Brodeur and Marty Turco are still likely to be around.

There's still a lot of NHL games left for every Canadian hopeful to make an impression but good play in the world championship usually counts a little more.

"I think the players know that putting on a good show here helps them in other competitions," Hitchcock said before this tournament started. "They're smart and I think that they've seen the correlation between contributing here, being successful, and then having the same opportunity at the Olympics."

Hitchcock himself seems like a natural selection to be the head coach of the 2010 team, but he says that someone else should get the chance. He was an assistant at the last two Olympics and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

It's safe to assume that Steve Yzerman will be given some sort of management role with the Olympic team after assembling the last two world championship squads. His teams compiled a 17-1 record - with the only loss coming in the gold medal game on Sunday.

Unlike Hitchcock, he admits to coveting a position with the next Olympic team.

"I think everybody wants to be a part of the Olympics in Canada in 2010," Yzerman said during the world championship. "The players, the coaches, the managers and the media. It's a big event for everyone."

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