West is best

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

Minutes after Canada's world junior camp roster was unveiled in Calgary yesterday, you could almost hear the screams from Chicoutimi, the shrills from Sherbrooke and the guffaws from Gatineau.

A whopping 21 of head coach Brent Sutter's 32 invites hail from the Western Hockey League, leaving room for just four French hopefuls.

This year's team will have no French coaches, no French goalie and no hope of escaping the annoying political outcries from La Belle Province.

"Am I worried about it? No," said the Red Deer Rebels GM-coach, confident the scouting advice he received from Blair Mackasey and his two OHL assistant coaches gave him sufficient basis to decide the west is best.

"Things go in cycles. I don't get caught up in what leagues players are from. I never have and never will. All the players we named today are from the Canadian Hockey League and, to me, that's one league. (The French count), to me, is so irrelevant, it's not worth talking about."

Yet, it will be debated heavily leading up to the team's Winnipeg training camp and subsequent performance in North Dakota over Christmas.

"We knew that criticism was going to come at us strong," acknowledged Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, a veteran of such controversies.

"If no one bitched, I'd be worried because that would mean we don't have the depth we think we have. Everyone says there's politics when you name every Canadian team. There isn't politics -- there's just a lot of depth.

"When you look at the Quebec league, there aren't many players but two will play key roles. Not only did (Patrice) Bergeron play in the men's world championship last year, he played key roles in winning the gold medal. The Bruins said he was their second-best player as a 18-year-old. Add to that Sidney Crosby and they'll have a big impact."

Many point to the results of the recent Russian Selects tour to demonstrate just how much stronger the west is. The same touring team that swept the QMJHL's best were pummelled by the WHL Selects.

"This year is an abnormality more than anything," said Mackasey of the western dominance. "I can remember a point in time when you had predominantly Ontario players and, in some years, quite a lot from Quebec."

Yes, those were teams that failed to bring home gold the last seven years -- a streak Sutter's team is favoured to snap, given the luxury of having 12 returnees from last year's silver medal winners. That said, just four forwards and three blueline spots will be up for grabs as will both goaltending jobs, marking the first time in nine years the starter doesn't have French as his first language. If Sutter can plug those holes well enough to claim gold for the first time since 1997, his faith in western boys like himself will silence eastern critics.

"We're very proud of having that many players invited," said WHL commish Ron Robison, adding 26 westerners will vie for spots on Canada's under-17 squad.

"It's a remarkable number that speaks to the work we do developing players. It also speaks volumes of the strength of the minor hockey system in western Canada and the great job being done at the grassroots levels."

Nine of the players invited have Calgary connections and nine are Hockey Alberta grads.

"All across Canada, we do something right -- not just in the west," said Sutter, who will pare the roster to 22 starting next week in Winnipeg. "The depth pool across the country is very high. It just so happens this year there seems to be a lot of top players from the west."

They'll start proving it Christmas Day.


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