Players just say yes

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:16 AM ET

QUEBEC CITY -- Ken Hitchcock was there for the 'No! No! No!' gong show of 2002.

The head coach of Team Canada for the first IIHF World Hockey Championships ever to be held in Canada was an assistant coach for the Worlds that year in Sweden.

But that was then and this is now, and this is the 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' home show of 2008.

MOST TALENTED TEAM

Hitchcock might just be coaching the most talented non-lockout year team Canada has ever taken to this tournament.

"What I like best is that almost all the people general manager Steve Yzerman asked to come have decided to come. We got a lot of yesses," said the Edmonton native who coaches the Columbus Blue Jackets. "I've been on the other side."

In 2002 in Sweden, just about everybody said no.

"In Sweden '87 players said no," Hitchcock recalled. "Lanny McDonald was devastated," he said of the G.M. that year.

"We had AHL players and players who were playing pro in Europe. And those guys almost pulled it off."

This columnist covered that World Championship and I'll never forget the night when it was over with no medal to bring home and players virtually lining up to offer me no-holds-barred quotes calling out the players who said no to Canada.

"I don't want to say it was embarrassing because of what those players accomplished. But it was tough to swallow. We were so desperate just to get the 20 players," remembered Hitch.

"When you're begging players who were not in the NHL to play for you ...

"We had a few say no this year, but most of them had injuries. But we had to say no to far more players who called us wanting to be part of this than we had tell us no. We had choices to make - very difficult choices.

"We're not going to be starting this tournament still begging players to come and rescue us. That's what we were doing in Sweden that year. The tournament was underway and we were still out there begging.

"That situation made Hockey Canada determined to make sure that was never going to happen again," he said.

And so, there was Hitchcock yesterday evening, gathering his team here for the first practice with a roster, including players added yesterday, which include Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Ryan Getzlaf, Eric Staal, Shane Doan, Martin St-Louis, Rick Nash, Jonathan Toews and Ed Jovanovski, to name just a few, with two spots on the blue-line still open for players coming off Game 7s.

"The attitude of players has dramatically changed in the last five or six years," said Hitchcock. "The word is out now among NHL players that it's a great experience.

Players now recognize this as a prime-time event. And a lot of them, I think, recognize that it's a very good idea to answer Canada's call in terms of this being a prelude to 2010. I think now everybody recognizes that.

"Players are smart. They know that the coaches change every year, but that there's real consistency with Hockey Canada management. They have an understanding of the correlation between accepting the call to play in this event and the Olympic team. They made a commitment to that and lived up to it," he said of what might be described as the Ryan Smyth factor.

"The upcoming Olympics in Canada are a factor. It makes it that much more of a reason to want to be here," said Jovanovski.

"Hockey Canada understands that chemistry, and the ability to accept a role and fit in is everything," said Hitchcock.

"If you can't fit in, you're not going to be in the Olympics. Players are not only coming to join this team, they're coming to prove they can fit in."

EASIER TO SAY YES

Doan, who captained Canada's gold-medal win last year in Moscow, said the event being in Canada to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the IIHF definitely made it easier for some to say yes. But there's more to it than that.

"This year it's huge being in Canada. It's incredible to play in this event in Canada. But it's much more than that. One thing is that Hockey Canada takes such good care of the players. So many of us, now, have experience how much fun it is, how enjoyable it is, to play in this event. The reason it continues to draw more guys is that it's such a great experience for us.

"Even last year in Moscow," said Doan of the location which wasn't drawing anybody as tourists. "We had a riot in Moscow. It helped that we won. But when you've had a great experience in Moscow, why wouldn't you want to play in Quebec City and Halifax?"


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