Mario's absence gets noticed

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:32 PM ET

VANCOUVER -- Just as winning the Olympic gold medal gets harder each time out, so does the task of trying to build the team to do it.

"There are just so many guys to choose from," said Team Canada 2006 executive director Wayne Gretzky.

"We had a list of 40 guys. We've got 37 guys here and each and every guy here has a chance to make it. And there could be guys on the team who aren't even here."

One of them certainly will be.

That's Mario Lemieux, who decided at the last minute that he had pressing business back in Pittsburgh that precluded his presence at the orientation camp.

It is not a move that went over well, even though, for public consumption, a brave face was put upon it.

"He has been here the last two tournaments," Gretzky said. "And he has a unique situation. He's an owner and he has a lot of responsibilities that other players don't have."

Of course, the guy making the statement also is an owner and he, too, has a lot of responsibilities, including being the coach of his team, the Phoenix Coyotes. But he made it here -- and he'll go with the team to Kelowna for the rest of the camp.

Joe Sakic is only able to stay for two days because his charity golf tournament was scheduled long before Team Canada announced its camp. But he's here for as long as he can be.

Surely Lemieux, as captain, could have managed to come out here for at least a day to get things rolling.

But with the exception of that one blip, all was well on the Team Canada front yesterday.

Smiles were everywhere as elite players, many of whom haven't played a meaningful game in 16 months, were able to renew acquaintances and get back on the ice.

Head coach Pat Quinn said one of the things he learned at Salt Lake City was that at the Olympic level, everything is done at a high tempo. When Canada decided to play at its own pace in the early stages, the result was embarrassing.

So this time, said Quinn: "We want to do things at a high tempo."

The players got the message. On the mirror-smooth General Motors Place ice, with its crisp new lines -- some of which have not been seen in an NHL rink before -- the players flew up and down, snapping pretty tape-to-tape passes and eliciting not only cheers of approval from the local crowd but also roars of amazement.

The enthusiasm was infectious.

"Every time you come here seems like the first time," Gretzky said.

"I love it," said goaltender Martin Brodeur. "Everyone loves it. This is my third time, but I wouldn't miss it. You never know when it might be your last one."

In a way, the task of Gretzky and his staff is easy because they have so much talent to work with. But on the other hand, it's difficult because if the guys who don't make the grade were allowed to form their own team, they'd have a good chance to win the gold medal themselves.

And Gretzky conceded that as the NHL season progresses, other players could be brought into the mix.

He said that someone like Paul Kariya, who was on the 2002 team, could have a bounce-back year and be named to the 2006 squad. Daniel Briere is another possibility.

Perhaps a highly touted rookie like Sidney Crosby or Calgary Flames defenceman Dion Phaneuf could take the NHL by storm. If so, he'd win a spot.

Age doesn't matter.

"You take the best players," Gretzky said. "Talent is always tough to beat."

Only 23 players will go to Turin, and injuries will preclude the presence of some players in this camp. Most of the others are on the bubble, but unless he backs out at the least minute, Lemieux is a lock to go as captain. Also going will be the heart of the 2002 team, Steve Yzerman.

"There is no bubble for Stevie Y," Gretzky said.


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