Joe Canada

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

DENVER -- Here's an Olympic moment we would like to see.

It's the opening faceoff of the gold-medal game in Turin between Team Canada, the pre-tournament favourite, and the second-ranked Swedes. As the two respective captains prepare for the draw, they take a moment to exchange greetings.

"Got a few flecks of grey happening in your hair, eh Joe," Sweden's Mats Sundin quips.

Responds Canada's Joe Sakic: "Hey Mats, at least I HAVE hair. What happened to those long flowing blond locks you displayed back in our Nordiques days?"

Will such a conversation occur? Probably not. Neither is well schooled in trash talking.

More importantly, in Sakic and Sundin you find a mutual respect that first bloomed 16 years ago when both were pimply-faced kids with the Quebec Nordiques.

Sure, expectations were high back in those days for this pair of talented prospects who shared a certain joie de vivre whenever they stepped onto the ice at the Colisee.

But even Sakic and Sundin admit they could never have foreseen the day when each would captain their native countries on a world stage like the Olympics.

"I learned a lot from Joe Sakic," said Sundin, the top overall pick in the 1989 entry draft. "I've followed his career even after I left Quebec.

"He was probably the best player at the Salt Lake Olympics (four years ago). He's a quiet leader. But he always comes up big with big goals in big games. Hopefully we'll run into each other late in the(Olympic) tournament."

The two parted ways in 1994 when Sundin was dealt to the Maple Leafs.

"You could tell how much talent (Sundin) had when he came up with us in Quebec," Sakic, the 15th overall pick in 1987, said yesterday. "He was a big, tall, lanky kid with a lot of skill.

"I haven't really seen him much since the Quebec days, but he's a real good guy and he's had a great career with Toronto."

Sakic and Sundin will renew acquaintances tonight when the Leafs play a rare game in Denver against the Colorado Avalanche. Because of NHL scheduling, the Leafs will be making their inaugural visit to the glitzy Pepsi Center, which opened in October of 1999.

And should Sakic take time to glance over at the Leafs bench at some point during the game he'll see one of his biggest supporters in Canadian coach Pat Quinn.

Like the rest of Team Canada's brass, Quinn felt Sakic was the perfect candidate to captain Canada once Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman withdrew their names from Olympic consideration.

"In my opinion, he was a major factor in one of the key moments in Salt Lake," Quinn said, recalling Canada's first Olympic gold-medal victory in 50 years.

"You've heard the term 'Check your ego at the door.' Well, that's what happened in 2002. When we struggled early on, our shifts were far too long. When we asked them to keep their shifts down after the first two games, it was Joe, Mario and Steve -- the stars -- who immediately followed the plan. The other guys saw that and bought in to what we were trying to do.

"I think in all our minds Joe was the natural choice as captain (in 2006)."

Quinn said as much when the Team Canada brass met in New Jersey in mid-December. He wasn't the only one to have that opinion.

"When we got phone calls from Mario and Steve saying they were not going to play, we walked into the room as a group that Friday in Jersey, all nine of us, and said 'Joe is the captain,' " Team Canada executive Wayne Gretzky said. "There was no discussion. There was no debate. There was no haggling. To a man, we all agreed."

All that remained was for Team Canada's Kevin Lowe to deliver the news.

"Obviously, being the captain of your country is a big, big (tribute)," Sakic, 36, said. "When Kevin phoned me to tell me, I was very honoured."

Sakic's trophy case already is stuffed with a pair of Stanley Cup rings, a Conn Smythe trophy as the NHL's MVP, a gold medal from Salt Lake and a 2004 World Cup title.

But that isn't enough. Winning the Olympic crown, he says, is the only satisfactory goal for Team Canada in Italy.

"I haven't felt any extra pressure since being named (Team Canada) captain," Sakic said. "When you've been around as long as I have, you get used to pressure.

"I do know that there was a LOT of pressure on us in 2002 and we dealt with that pretty well. That's what you want, though. You want the pressure to win it all. There's so much pride about hockey (in Canada), so it's going to be the same in (Italy). We're there to win gold.

"The Olympics are great, because you're never going to play hockey at that level. You've got that two weeks, where it's the best hockey you will ever see. The World Cup is not like the Olympics. All the countries (of the world) are watching (the Olympics) and it's a privilege to be a part of that."

Mention Sakic's name to the Great One, and Gretzky immediately thinks of the title match against the host Americans in Salt Lake four years ago.

"We said among ourselves before the gold-medal game that if Joe played well, we would win the game," Gretzky said. "Well, he scored two goals and we won the game (5-2)."

It was an experience Sakic will never forget.

"It was great, because there had been so much pressure on us to win," Sakic said. "It's something you'll always remember, getting the medals and hearing the anthem."

He plans on re-living that moment, this time in Italy.

Sorry, Mats.


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