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On Top of the World

by Kevin Wilson / Nashville Predators
Three Predators have a hand in Canada’s gold-medal winning performance at the 2007 World Championships in Russia.

For the second time in three years, the Predators struck gold at the International Hockey World Championships. Following in the footsteps of Czech Republic-natives Tomas Vokoun and Marek Zidlicky in 2005, Shea Weber, Dan Hamhuis and Chris Mason helped Team Canada to its third gold-medal winning performance in the past five years. The Canadians finished with a perfect 9-0-0 record, which included a defeat of defending champs Sweden, 4-1, to reach the finals, and Finland, 4-2, in the deciding contest.

The annual tournament, held this year in Moscow and Mytischi, Russia, April 27 – May 13, featured six Nashville players –Ryan Suter (United States), Marek Zidlicky (Czech Republic) and Alexander Radulov (Russia) being the others – and was the Canadians’ 24th title in 99-year history of the competition.

After a sluggish start, dropping Germany and Norway by scores of just 3-2 and 4-2, respectively, Team Canada began to click, averaging nearly five goals per game for the remainder of its run.

Mason will try to carry what he learned at the World Championships over to the ice in October for the Predators.
“At the beginning of the tournament, people get there at different times and you are just getting to know your teammates the first couple days of the tournament,” Mason said. “Because of that, our hardest games were in the beginning, and once we got past the first round, we seemed to really gel.”

The players attributed much of their success to the head coaching job of Andy Murray, who also serves as bench boss for the St. Louis Blues. It was Murray’s third time at the helm of a gold-medal winning Canadian team at the World Championships – he also led the country in 1997 and 2003, a team Predators Head Coach Barry Trotz assisted for.

Coaching in international play requires that the team buys into a system in a matter of weeks, not months as seen during an 82-game professional schedule. Hamhuis, who finished the tournament with goal and two assists in addition to posting a plus-four rating, credited Murray with “creating and maintaining a consistent focus and mindset” from the day players set foot in the locker room.

“He made sure we were prepared for every game and he took us to a whole new level,” Weber added. “He left nothing unsaid, and motivated us to be ready at all times.”

Also key to the squad’s success was how fast they bonded off the ice. The 25-man contingent checked all egos off at the door, helping to create a friendly atmosphere, and ensuring that they embraced the system Murray implemented.

“We were a really tight group,” Hamhuis said. “Moscow isn’t exactly Canada or the United States, it is a little bit scary and a little bit different than what we are used to, so I think that helped us bond. We did everything together and everyone enjoyed being with each other – that really helped our success.”

Mason, who played in Norway during the NHL work stoppage of 2004-05, echoed Hamhuis’ sentiments, saying the size and culture of Moscow was quite a shock, especially coming from a small town like Red Deer, Alberta.

For Weber, it was his first trip across the pond to Europe – he had never vacationed there and the only other international play he had participated in was at the 2005 World Junior Championship in North Dakota, where he was also undefeated at 6-0-0.

“They are both great experiences and really special in there own way,” said Weber, who had a goal and an assist in five games. “Anytime you are chosen to play for your country it is an honor, and even though the country of Canada always expects you to win, it takes a lot of work and solid group of guys.”

Making the quick transition from North American ice, where the surface is 200 feet by 85 feet, to international rinks, which are 15 feet wider, is not always easy though. Hamhuis and Weber, who both play defense, agreed it was particularly difficult for skaters at their position, because the forwards have so much more time and space to operate. It is imperative that blueliners don’t wander too far, because it can create an insurmountable gap to make up.

“Chasing them to the outside is a waste of energy – and you learn that quickly,” Hamhuis said. “On the other hand, jumping into the attack can be great because there is more room to wheel around and find your forwards.”

The dimension changes have traditionally favored the European teams, who play on the surface year round. Mason said teams like Sweden and Finland have developed lethal power plays, because they use the extra space to their advantage so well. For netminders and defenders alike, learning these systems are some of the valuable things they can take home from the tournament, besides the gold around their neck.

“A lot of confidence also develops from these tournaments – knowing you can compete as an individual with the best players in the world,” Hamhuis said. “I think finally winning a tournament is something I can build on too.”

In his two prior tournaments donning the Canadian Maple Leaf at 2001 World Junior Championships in Russia, and at the same tournament in 2002 held in the Czech Republic, the Smithers, B.C., native fell just short of supremacy, taking bronze and silver, respectively.

Hamhis played a more offensive role for Canada in comparison to the one he played for the Preds in 2006-07.
“The difference between getting bronze, silver and gold is very small,” he said. “Looking back, every team I’ve played on was a couple of close calls or a couple of bounces away from winning it all, this team just got those. Sometimes it is the little things since there is such a fine line between winning and losing.”

Both Mason and Weber thought their observations as a part of Team Canada were the most valuable things they could bring back to the Predators for 2007-08, not only in games and practices, but in the locker room as well.

“Seeing some of the other guys from other teams, and the way they play and prepare was valuable for me,” Weber said. “There was a great leadership base on that team, so to learn and take some tips from them was great.”

Regardless of the whirlwind of emotions that are felt as one ends their professional season, flies halfway around the world, and ultimately comes out on top of the world, nothing compares to the pride these three Predators felt upon coming out of the tunnel in their nation’s colors.

“Just putting on the Canadian jersey is one of the biggest honors I have ever had,” Mason said. “Even though I didn’t play, you feel such pride just getting to put the jersey on and going out for warm-ups. Hopefully one of these times, if I’m not in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, I’ll get a chance to play and come even closer to fulfilling a childhood dream.”
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