Outta sight, outta mind?

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:14 AM ET

INNSBRUCK, Austria -- Slovenia, eh?

In the entire nation of Slovenia there are 103 registered senior hockey players.

That's one out of five on the national team.

In the entire nation there are 888 players of all ages and both sexes.

That's what Canada is up against tomorrow. Think of it as playing Prince Edward Island. Except, all of the Canadian players can probably put Prince Edward Island on a map. But how many know exactly where Slovenia - the nation which is in its third IIHF World Hockey Championships and opened the tournament here yesterday with a 7-0 loss to the Americans - is located?

"You'd have to ask them," said coach Marc Habscheid after practice here yesterday.

So I did. I took a poll.

"Just east of here, I think," guessed Ryan Smyth.

"I think it's up by Russia," said Sheldon Souray.

"Over by Belarus," said assistant coach Craig MacTavish.

"No clue. Is it by Transylvania?" offered Kris Draper.

IT'S NOT FAR FROM HERE

"Not far from here. I know it's not far because Ted Sator's wife Tracy phoned for tickets, saying they're going to drive here. He's running a hockey instructional program there this year," said Martin Brodeur of the former New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres coach.

"Aw, that's a tough poll, man. You get any correct answers so far?" said Dan Boyle.

"No idea," said Scott Walker as he left the practice ice to make way for the Latvians they'd defeated 6-4 the night before.

"Where's Slovenia?" he whispered to a passing Latvian, Karlis Skrastins.

Skrastins put his hockey glove over his mouth and informed Walker the nation used to be a part of Yugoslavia and that most of the Slovenian lads are from Ljubljana, 381 km due south of here.

So I had a winner. Sort of.

Canada has never played Slovenia.

Judging from what we watched here yesterday, they are not likely to give the Canadians the same kind of test the Latvians somehow manage year after year here.

CAN'T WAIT TO PLAY CANADA

They do have one prospect on the way.

He's six-foot-three Anze Kopitar, who is ranked 10th by NHL central scouting. He led the Swedish junior league in scoring this year. And he can't wait to play Canada.

"It is an important game to play Canada, to play all the NHL stars. It should be fun for everybody," he said.

OK. It's a bit scary, too, going against the back-to-back world champions.

"A bit of both. I think in the beginning we will all be a little bit nervous," he said.

He says he dreams of scoring a goal on Canada. How big would that be?

"Big!"

Kopitar said he doesn't mind being the only almost-name player on the team.

"It's a nice feeling to be the only one."

There won't be the same scene around the game as there was in Canada's 6-4 win against Latvia. While the Latvians banged drums and blew horns, the Slovenians had a lonely accordion player for the game against the U.S..

The Slovenians didn't show up in the thousands like the Latvians, but there were as many fans - most of them with flags and wearing national team sweaters - as there are registered players in the country.

This is only Slovenia's third trip to the Worlds. The first was in 2002 in Sweden where they managed to avoid relegation and make it back in 2003 where they didn't. There are few who expect them to survive to be back next year as Italy and France move up from B Pool to replace the two lowest- placed teams in the tournament.

There are those who believe the IIHF ought to go back to 12 teams from 16 and keep the Slovenians, etc. out. But Habscheid, a true internationalist, disagrees.

"It's good for the game," he said.

'IT HELPS TO GROW THE GAME'

"I watched the Denmark game and their fans came here and it was exciting," he said of a 4-2 loss to Finland. "They need to know how far they have to go to the next level. It helps to grow the game."

To say nothing of educating our players.

"I didn't know where Riga was until this year and now I've played there twice," laughed Martin Brodeur, who also played in Katowice, Poland, earlier this year.

This is the game we gave the world.

We should be proud of all this.


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