Firestorm awaits

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 12:29 PM ET

If there's a firestorm of controversy awaiting them in Italy - where the international media is waiting to hammer Team Canada about a gambling scandal that's getting dangerously close to executive director Wayne Gretzky - veteran Olympians Ryan Smyth and Chris Pronger say they're not going to let it scorch their Olympic experience.

"I don't really think it has anything to do with any of us over there,'' said Pronger. "It has nothing to do with me, so I don't really have anything to say about it. When you find somebody who's involved, you can talk to them.''

They'll be wanting to talk to Gretzky, to the point that it could become a major distraction, but Pronger is glad he still plans on accompanying the team to Turin.

"You could kind of see after that first game how important he was,'' said Pronger, recalling how Gretzky helped change the momentum in 2002, taking the negative attention off his players and putting it on himself with a press-conference rant about anti-Canadian bias. "Taking the focus off of us and putting it on him, he awakened the team and let us go about our job. It'll be great having him there from a leadership perspective.''

These games, more than any other, will be a minefield of expectations, allegations, criticism and pressure for the hockey team. Anything less than a gold medal will be considered abject failure. The playoff format is one-game elimination, a frightening concept with opposition goalies like Dominik Hasek, Tomas Vokoun and Henrik Lundqvist. They've lost defencemen Ed Jovanovski and Scott Niedermayer to injury. And as much as Canada would like the focus to be on hockey, the gambling scandal won't go away. And the Todd Bertuzzi questions haven't even started yet.

But they should be used to it by now. People love watching a powerhouse stumble, so there's always going to be a bull's-eye on Team Canada. Four years ago, after losing the opening game to Sweden, barely beating Germany and tying their final round-robin game against the Czechs, the mood around Salt Lake alternated between gloom, panic and glee, depending on your country of origin.

"We kind of got thrown under the bus after the first game,'' said Pronger. "But we really stuck together. We saw our team evolve and develop into the team you saw at the end. Everybody was on the same page and playing great.''

They all know that defending won't be easy.

"You look at the countries and I don't know if there's any clear-cut favourite,'' said Pronger. "There's a handful of teams that could probably win the whole thing.''

With mounting injuries on the Canadian defence, Pronger will be a cornerstone on the blueline, and with only four forwards returning from 2002, Smyth will be one of the dressing room leaders.

"It's a big thing, dealing with pressure,'' said Smyth, a veteran of countless big games on the international stage. "I'll provide (leadership) any way I can, whether it's leading by example or just the experience I've had.''

Smyth recalls the stifling pressure in the hours and minutes leading up to the 2002 final, the biggest game in Canadian hockey since 1972.

"The Canada-U.S. thing was so exciting, it being in the States,'' he said. "That last game was overwhelming. I got to start that game, I was ecstatic. And the end result, sitting in the locker-room, just the guys and management, looking at the medals, enjoying the win, is something that I'll always treasure.''

At the other end of the spectrum, Pronger was there when Canada lost a shootout to the Czech Republic in the 1998 semifinal.

"It was like we just had our hearts ripped out,'' he said. "It was like we didn't even want to play that bronze-medal game against Finland, and you could probably tell from the way we played.

"You're going over there with high expectations, wanting to win gold, and anything less is obviously going to be disappointing. But at the same time, having gone through the experience in '98 and '02, if you don't win gold, you want to at least come home with a medal, knowing that you've represented your country as well as you can.''

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T'S TOP FIVE

IN THE WAKE OF INJURIES ON DEFENCE AND THE RICK TOCCHET GAMBLING SCANDAL, THE TOP FIVE OTHER THINGS THAT COULD GO WRONG FOR TEAM CANADA:

5 - Bruno-Scarfo's associates in Turin "make some calls'' before Canada plays Italy.

4 - Wives of several prominent players linked to illegal plastic surgery ring.

3 - Todd Bertuzzi.

2 - They discover a lucky loonie buried in a south Philly ice rink. Unfortunately it was still in the guy's pocket.

1 - Roberto Luongo isn't starting? Wait till the Italians hear about this.

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THEY SAID IT

- "It took three years for Pully (senior vice-president Bob Pulford) to get grey; it'll take two for Dale. The losses are tearing him up.''

- Hawks owner Bill Wirtz on GM Dale Tallon.

- "It's not just Detroit that I wasn't liked, it's just the way I played. I wouldn't go to a bar in Boston if they paid me. I'd get my butt kicked.''

- Chris Chelios, on his fiesty days in Chicago.

- "Shootouts are great if you win. If you don't, you don't like them. I think we're at a point where we really don't like them right now.''

- Brad Stuart, on Boston being 0-5 in shootouts.

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T'S TEAM OF THE WEEK

C - CHRIS GRATTON (PANTHERS): Eight points in three games. Where did this come from?

LW - MIRO SATAN (ISLANDERS): The dark prince nets four goals and two assists in three games.

RW - JON SIM (PANTHERS): Three-game scoring streak on the go, including a hat-trick against Washington.

LD - FRANCOIS BEAUCHEMIN (MIGHTY DUCKS): Since when do D men go on seven-game points-scoring streaks?

RD - JAY BOUWMEESTER (PANTHERS): Plus five with seven points in the last six games, and makes Team Canada.

G - CRISTOBEL HUET (CANADIENS): Three wins, two shutouts in last four. And his hair is real.

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T'S QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"Most of the time, I'm not 100% sure what i'm doing out there.''

-- Rookie Senators D Christoph Schubert on adjusting to playing forward.


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