Deal the black aces in?

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:58 AM ET

CALGARY -- Here, they were Canada's black aces. Next year they may be Canada's Olympic team.

Mark Astley, Jamie Heward, Andy Schneider, Matt Davidson, Jamie Pollock and Chris Herperger filled Team Canada practice uniforms this past week, knowing that maybe next year they'll be at the Torino Winter Olympics.

Then there are all those other guys, the ones with the famous faces who leave from here today to Halifax, Quebec City, Riga, Prague and, eventually, the IIHF World Hockey Championships in Austria.

The NHL stars are hoping the black aces don't get that chance.

Marty Brodeur, Canada's national netminder who won gold at the Salt Lake Olympics, says coming off the lockout, hockey has to send the NHL players to Torino.

"The fans want it," he said. "At the end of the day we've hurt the game so much. The Olympics are an opportunity to take back some of the damage we did.

"The Olympic Games is a great event for hockey. We'll be missing a chance to help heal the game if we don't go. Four years later the Olympics are in Vancouver. You can't just pick and choose which Olympics you go to."

With the lockout, who knows how this will work out. But there is a chance, a good chance, Canada will end up sending members of our national team, the European-based players Marc Habscheid coached in three tournaments over there this year.

"That's the whole reason why we're here," said Heward of the five day mini-camp which was completed yesterday.

A GOOD CHANCE

"There's maybe an 85% to 90% chance we could be the players they're looking at to take to the Olympics," added the Regina native who plays for Zurich in the Swiss League.

Schneider doesn't like the odds.

"I'm not holding my breath. I think NHL players will be given the opportunity when all this shakes down. Still, there's a chance, and when Marc Habscheid phoned me Tuesday to come here and fill in, I jumped at it," said the Edmonton native who plays for Duesseldorf in Germany.

Habscheid picked these players, not because they were the very best of his national team players, but because they're all back from Europe and within driving distance here and could fill the uniforms of Ryan Smyth, Joe Thornton, Rick Nash, Chris Phillips and Sheldon Souray. But he says they're six of the guys who could be filling the uniforms in Torino if the NHLers don't go.

REASON FOR DOING IT

"That's why we did what we did this year," he said of playing the European-based Canadians in the tournament instead of the NHL players who would have loved to have gone over and been involved. "There's a very good chance they could be in the Olympics."

Habscheid says there are plans being put in place for these black aces, and the rest of the Canadian pros playing in Europe, to come together at a camp here this summer if the whole thing remains up in the air.

"I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen," said Astley, a Calgary native who also plays in the Swiss Elite League.

Astley would love to be able to bookend his career with an Olympics.

He won a silver medal at the Lillihammer Olympics with the Canadian team and has probably worn the Canadian uniform more than anybody overseas.

"I've always believed you should answer the call whenever you can. I'm probably the oldest black ace there is now," said the 37-year-old.

Heward, who played for this team in winning a gold medal at the world championships two years ago and who was with the team for another gold last year, although he didn't play, says every chance he has to play whatever part, he takes.

He says he's never been treated as a second-class citizen by the NHL players.

"I love it. And to be here and see how excited people are to come to a practice and see these players on the ice together, and be one of them, is wonderful. I played with Nashville and Columbus and it's not the same.

"I looked at a couple of little kids' faces during practice today and it made this all worthwhile. It's an honour. It's always an honour."


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