Olympic journey begins now

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:34 PM ET

VANCOUVER -- This is where it all begins.

Today, the group that will carry Canada's hockey hopes into the Winter Olympics will come together for the first time.

It is not a team yet, any more than an acorn is an oak. But if all goes according to plan, somewhere among the 37 elite players here in camp today are the 23 who will come back from Turin, Italy, in February with a gold medal.

This is not a do-or-die evaluation camp. After two days in Vancouver and three days in Kelowna, the Team Canada 2006 executives hope to get an idea of this squad's nature, but they won't make any cuts.

This is just one of the many transitional stages.

The serious decisions will be made as the National Hockey League season progresses.

Yet the importance of this camp should is not to be underestimated. To flourish at the top of the hockey pinnacle requires a devotion to the cause that is relentless, conscientious and meticulous.

In any sport, success or failure can depend upon one bounce, one fluke, one slight advantage. The more rarefied the air becomes, the more imperative it is that as many variables are eliminated as possible.

So the Team Canada organizers, who firmly believe that the pre-Olympic camp held in Calgary in September 2001 played a crucial role in the gold-medal triumph five months later in Salt Lake City, are following a similar course this time around.

To the untrained eye, this camp might not reveal a lot. The players will spend a good deal of time off the ice. And when they do scrimmage, they won't deliver any serious hits. The lines will be juggled and defensive pairings will be mixed.

But the eyes of Wayne Gretzky and his support staff are not untrained.

Far from it.

These people notice that some players work well together, even if their association is no more than fleeting. They notice that in social situations, some guys fit into the group better than others. They notice that some players wear respect like an aura.

They weigh these considerations in their minds and the team begins its evolution.

In the Calgary camp, for instance, Jarome Iginla burst upon the scene unexpectedly. He was called at the last moment when Simon Gagne showed up with a previously undiagnosed injury. Iginla's hockey attributes, not to mention his infectious enthusiasm, so impressed the organizers that he not only made the team, he became part of the first line.

Had there been no Calgary camp, there would have been no Iginla on the team. And in the game that won the gold medal, Canada's 5-2 victory over the United States, Iginla scored twice, assisted on a third goal and provided the screen that was instrumental in the fourth.

It is unlikely that anyone will parallel the Iginla saga in this camp. Even if someone gets hurt in the early going, it's unlikely that player will be replaced.

After all, the task of Gretzky and his staff already is monumental. Trying to evaluate these players is so difficult that the only guy with a tougher decision is Hugh Hefner.

Incredible as it may seem, it wasn't long ago that denigrating Canadian hockey was a media cottage industry. Those who saw the downturn as temporary were ridiculed.

But now, the country boasts so many phenomenal players that selecting a team is a major headache, not because of the lack of talent but because of the surplus of it.

Our nation has caught and surpassed the other hockey-playing countries in the world, but with emulation of the Canadian success as their goal, these other nations are constantly improving as well.

That's why, with so many superb players to choose from and so little difference between them, this west-coast session is a key phase of the Team Canada development.

Nothing can be left to chance.


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