Canada's roll is no accident

AL STRACHAN, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 8:09 AM ET

The euphoria that the nation felt when Canada's juniors won the world championship earlier this week is similar to the euphoria the country felt after the men won the World Cup in September. And after the February 2002 victory at the Salt Lake City Olympics.

But what tends to be overlooked is the fact that although these are indeed separate triumphs, they are intertwined, all a part of the same approach to the game.

Canada has never been short of pride when it comes to hockey. We claim a proprietary interest in the game and we stock hockey teams all over the world.

And we've been doing it for a long time. You didn't think that the 1936 Olympic hockey gold medal won by Great Britain was the result of efforts by British players did you?

But sometimes, that Canadian pride didn't always translate into victory. The Team Canada that got hammered 8-1 by the Soviet Union in the 1981 Canada Cup had plenty of pride but, unfortunately, it didn't have the flair and artistry that the Soviets were able to exhibit in those days.

Equally important, it didn't have the resolve and commitment necessary to counter the Soviet approach.

But that was Wayne Gretzky's first exposure to international hockey at the professional level, his first Canada Cup and he, like every other player on that team, was embarrassed by the outcome.

In the next Canada Cup, in 1984, the outcome was different. The Canadians beat the Soviets in the semi-final and swept past Sweden in a best-of-three final.

But during that series, a great deal of animosity arose between two factions on Team Canada. In that era, the dominant teams in the National Hockey League were the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers.

The two had just faced each other in successive Stanley Cup finals -- the Islanders winning the first, the Oilers the second -- and the rivalry was intense.

When the players came together in the Team Canada dressing room, they did not readily mix -- to put it mildly.

But with the team being in danger of elimination even before the playoff round began, Larry Robinson, the Montreal Canadiens defencemen who had considerable experience in carting Stanley Cups around the ice, issued a plague on both their houses.

He pointed out to everyone in the room that they were representing Canada, not Edmonton or Long Island and that if the team suffered another loss at the hands of the Soviets, it would be an embarrassment to the nation, not just to two NHL teams, one of which wasn't even in Canada.

It was a speech that Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and the other core players who returned for subsequent international play never forgot.

The importance of leadership and the need to focus on the national team was forever etched in their minds. In the 1987 Canada Cup, those three made a concerted effort to take Eric Lindros under their wing.

Lindros had been designated -- and not unreasonably so, it seemed at the time -- as the next great star of Canadian hockey. When Gretzky, Messier and Coffey went golfing, Lindros was invited as the fourth. When they went for dinner, Lindros received an invitation. The torch was being passed. And it has been passed ever since.

Every one of those players recognized the need to maintain the pride Canadian hockey players have in their heritage and they went out of their way to make sure it was perpetuated.

We have seen the influence of Gretzky on the men's team, and in Grand Forks, N.D., over the past couple of weeks, we saw the influence of Team Canada juniors coach Brent Sutter.

He just happened to be on three of those Canada Cup teams with Gretzky and the others.


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