National pride is on the line

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

The training camp for the 2005 version of Team Canada opens today in Calgary amid mixed emotions.

While many fans will watch intently and will fervently support the team in its bid to win a third consecutive world championship for Canada, others will say that because they're still upset about the NHL lockout, they are not going to follow the developments.

That latter group often tosses in some grumbles about "greedy players," although it's unclear how people who devote a month to play for their country for little more than pocket change can be considered greedy.

What should be taken into account is the whole purpose of these events. Canada gets involved in international tournaments, and Canadian fans lend their support, out of a sense of national pride.

We want the bragging rights. We want to be able to say that we are the world's top hockey nation, especially in the category where participation is unlimited.

At the level which interests us most, you don't have to be of a certain gender or of a certain age. You just issue the challenge: You send the best team you can come up with, and we'll send the best team we can come up with and let's see who comes out on top.

Canada got back into world championship participation in 1977, after taking a hiatus because the Soviets were using professional players and calling them amateurs. International tournaments are always about prestige, and there was no prestige in losing a mismatch year after year.

Even when the world championship was opened up to professionals, Canada didn't do well because most of the good players were still participating in the NHL playoffs.

In those days, there were fewer NHL teams and almost all of them took part in post-season activities. But one of the by-products of the expansion to 30 teams has been the availability of high-level players when the time for the world championship roll around.

Now, the organizers can choose from 14 non-playoff teams, not five. This year, they can choose from all 30, but so can the rest of the world.

COMPETITION

As a result, even though all the top countries will be without some players who have opted out because they haven't been playing competitively this season, the level of competition will be as high as it possibly could be.

Does it matter? It does if you're one of those Canadians who stayed up all night to watch the Games in Nagano in 1998, or if you're one of the millions who joined in impromptu renditions of O Canada during the 2002 gold-medal game in Salt Lake City.

You did it because you're a Canadian and you're proud of our hockey. At a nationwide level, there's not much else in the country to be proud of these days.

Whether North American fans watch or not, the rest of the hockey world will be watching and they're the people Canadians want to convince when it comes to deciding who had the rights to hockey supremacy.

This event is the single most widely watched winter sports event in the world. It will be available on 159 television stations in 26 countries.

In Canada, it will be shown from start to finish on TSN, which last year pulled in 1.1 million viewers for the gold-medal game between Canada and Sweden.

The numbers were even better in Sweden where, out of a population of nine million, 2.4 million tuned in.

When people around the world watch these games, they don't say, "If Canada loses, we'll still consider them to be the best because some of their fans back home are sulking about the lockout."

They'll say, "If Canada loses, perhaps they're not that good after all."

This is Team Canada. Not Team NHL Lockout.


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