It still matters

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:19 AM ET

RED DEER -- There was a time when Canada-Russia would clear the streets in this country, when we thought they were steely robots bent on Summit Series victories and world domination, and we couldn't decide which scared us more. But the Hammer and Sickle, a flag that struck fear and commanded respect anywhere in the Cold War world, is gone, replaced by red, white and blue stripes that could easily be mistaken for France.

The Big Red Machine, now a handful of Smaller Red Machines with a lot of Western parts, doesn't inspire the same kind of fear and loathing it did in September 1972.

But get the two old foes together, like they did last night for a standing-room crowd at the Red Deer Centrium, and it still matters, no matter how many times we've danced with the Russian Bear before.

"I've been part of it as a player in Canada Cups and World Championships and coached it last year, and it still excites you,'' said Brent Sutter, who coached the Western Hockey League All-Stars to a lopsided 6-0 victory over the Russian Selects.

SEE THE EXCITEMENT

"And you can see the excitement in the eyes of these players, too. There's still that Russian-Canadian rivalry and it's always going to be that way.

''It doesn't matter if it's 100 years ago or 100 years from now, it's always going to be that way.''

It isn't the same as when Phil Esposito was leading the troops - fans draped in Russian flags never used to sign along with Boney M's Rasputin in Canadian buildings - but when you're an 18-year-old kid with a Maple Leaf on his chest in a series that's tied 2-2, it means something.

"This morning in the dressing room everybody was pretty pumped up about it,'' said Dion Phaneuf, the Edmonton-born defenceman who captained the WHL team. "It's a Canada-Russia series! This has been going on for 30 years, so everyone is definitely excited to be a part of it.''

Even when there are more Russians in North America than you can swing a bag of US dollars at and most Canadian juniors today are too young to even remember what an iron curtain is.

"I think it's still pretty important, I think the shine is still there,'' said Sutter, adding it doesn't matter much that there is nothing mysterious or particularly ominous about the opponent anymore. "The world is different; European players are coming over here, North American players are going to Europe, but kids today hear stories and see tapes from way back and it excites them.''

Winger Ryan Stone wasn't even born when Paul Henderson scored and was only two years old when Paul Coffey broke up that famous two-on-one in 1987.

"Everybody's heard all those great stories about Canada-Russia, so to finally be a part of this is pretty exciting,'' said the Brandon Wheat King, who had two assists in his first-ever game against the Russians.

"Everybody knows about these two teams.''

Brett Carson, a Calgary Hitman defenceman, was playing his first ever international game of any sort. That it was against Russia is something he'll never forget.

"I just off a gruelling road trip so I was pretty tired,'' said Carson, who flew in from Vancouver yesterday morning after a seven-game, 13-day road trip.

"But the adrenaline was pumping tonight, nothing was going to slow me down.''

HAVING THEIR WAY

The same could be said for all of them. Canada had its way with the Selects, out shooting them 39-17 in a rout that could have reached double digits if not for netminder Andrei Kuznetsov.

The series is a warm-up, of course, for the World Junior Championships, where the Canadians have failed in their last six attempts at gold.

This is their last chance to impress the coaching staff (Sutter picks Team Canada's training camp invitees Monday) and send a message to the handful of last night's Russians who'll be on their national team.

The sixth and final game is tonight in Lethbridge, where a WHL win or tie clinches it.

"There's definitely a little something there,'' said Phaneuf, who's going to be a pillar on the Calgary Flames defence for years to come. "The Ontario league did a good job tying it up (after the Quebec League lost the first two games), now we have to finish it off.

"You don't want to be the team that loses to them, ever.''


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