Stars will shine at worlds

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Step by step, piece by piece, Team Canada 2005 is starting to take shape. Head coach Marc Habscheid was named to his post last year. The management team, led by Steve Tambellini, was announced on Monday. And on Thursday, the assistant coaches, Tom Renney and Craig MacTavish came on board.

Now comes the tricky part. Getting the right players.

The National Hockey League's lockout will have a lot to do with determining the choices, but the organizers can't lose sight of the fact that the reason Canada is involved in next month's world championship -- to enhance our national prestige as the world's top hockey nation -- has nothing to do with the NHL.

To most of the hockey world, this is the major tournament of the year. In fact, in terms of cumulative number of viewers, it is the biggest annual winter sports event in the world. More than 700 million people will watch.

Even if the Stanley Cup playoffs had taken place this year, they wouldn't have come close to those numbers.

As winners of the past two world championships, Canada will be a target for every other nation. There will be no easy games.

But because the owners lockout has left so many stars idle this winter, the usual deep talent pool is relatively shallow.

Mario Lemieux first agreed to play, then changed his mind. Even a call from his close friend Wayne Gretzky couldn't get him to revert to his original decision for the simple reason that Lemieux genuinely had tried to get into shape, but at the age of 39, found that he couldn't.

Fortunately for Canada, a lot of players, fully aware that they had a chance to play in the world championship and next year's Olympics, opted to stay in shape by staying in Europe.

Joe Thornton, for instance, who got better every game as the 2004 World Cup progressed, is a lock. So is the other budding superstar who continued his emergence in that tournament, Vincent Lecavalier.

But some of the heroes of the 2002 Olympics and last year's World Cup already have said they won't play in Austria. Expect some of them to change their minds.

In the next few days, some serious arm-twisting will be taking place and the virtues of the program will be extolled.

Hockey Canada is planning an extensive training camp to help the players get their conditioning back up to a suitable level, and has planned more exhibition games than usual for a tournament of this nature.

Those games will not only help the players get into shape, they'll help defer the costs of insurance, always high for players of this calibre.

Exhibitions will be staged in Quebec City and Halifax, the host cities for the 2008 world championships, then in Riga and Prague.

In addition, the organizers are providing a full family program. In essence, the wife and kids get a paid vacation in Austria while hubby is playing for Canada.

The Olympic carrot is also a strong inducement. It is no secret in the upper echelons of Canadian hockey that veterans of the international wars get preference over those who didn't serve.

Winning a Stanley Cup is still the major goal in a North American hockey player's life, but an Olympic gold medal isn't far behind.

Even though NHL involvement in the 2006 Olympics in Italy is not yet guaranteed, the players know that the Players' Association is strongly in favour of it. It's also quite conceivable that the lockout will still be in effect, thereby allowing the NHLers to participate.

So for all these reasons, some players who have opted out can be expected to change their minds.

They are, after all, stars. And stars are supposed to shine.

Al Strachan says there are enough inducements to get top Canadians on the ice


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