Best of friends & enemies

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:34 AM ET

We got the better of them in Geneva in 1997, the last time this country won the gold medal. They returned the favour last year, ripping our hearts out in Helsinki.

Anybody up for a Rubber Match at The Ralph?

Let's face it, if you could write the perfect script for the 2005 World Junior Hockey Championship, it would end with Canada taking on the U.S. in the gold-medal final at the Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.

What could be better?

You'd have 12,000 flag-waving, face-painted patriots screaming from the stands, half wearing the Red, White and Blue, and half the Maple Leaf, presumably.

The show on the ice would feature the defending champs, the new kid on the block, against the nation that invented the game.

A juicy thought, isn't it? Imagine the TV ratings for that one. Heck, they might even get more than a few hundred to watch it down in the Unexcited States.

The thing is, a few years back nobody would have picked the Canucks and Yanks as the hottest rivalry on ice.

Back then, it was always the Polar Bear against the Russian Bear.

But somewhere along the way, the good old USA learned how to play. Uncle Sam got himself in shape, and the hockey world hasn't been the same since.

"It's changed," Team Canada's head scout, Blair Mackasey, was saying the other day. "Obviously, Russia's always a rivalry. But ... certainly our most bitter rival would be the U.S. We're best of friends, yet we're the best of enemies."

It began at the men's level, where the U.S. began to give our pros all they could handle in events like the World Cup and Olympics.

More recently, Old Glory and The Peacekeeper have begun to duke it out as teenagers.

"It seems every time we get into the Under-17s or the Under-18s, or even the world juniors now, the U.S. is our main competition," Mackasey said. "Last year, they defeated us in the final. The year before, we defeated them in the semis in Halifax, in a heartbreaker. I wouldn't expect anything different this year."

Particularly when you realize the two teams will look remarkably similar to those of a year ago.

The Americans have a healthy eight players returning from last year's championship team, the Canadians 12 from the group that won silver.

"The U.S. program is very strong," Mackasey said. "Last year for the first time in history, there were more kids enrolled in minor hockey in the U.S. than there were in Canada. They're developing very good players, but the best athletes now are starting to turn to hockey.

"I don't think it was a one-shot deal at all."

So while Canada goes into the tournament with its best team in years -- some say its best, ever -- the competition has also cranked it up a notch.

And we're not just talking the U.S.

The Russians will be dripping with talent, led by Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, the top two picks in last summer's NHL draft.

The Czechs have 10 players returning from the team that finished fourth last year.

The Finns are always competitive.

And the Slovaks will bring much of the team that lost to Canada in the final of the World Under-18 Championship two years ago.

"There are four or five teams now every year that are capable of winning this tournament if they play well," Mackasey said.

Some have quite a heated history, too.

Russia and the Czechs once fought a war, for instance.

These days things aren't quite as extreme.

Here on our continent, we seem to bicker endlessly over softwood lumber and live cattle.

But, lately, we've been saving our best for the ice.

Canada has played the States 31 times in world junior history, more than any other opponent.

Here's to meeting No. 32 down the I-29 on Jan. 4.


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