Canadians on edge of huge medal haul

They'll be a medal threat the moment they lace on the blades in Turin, an intimidating collection of youth and experience, and a good bet to return home with Olympic gold.

No, I'm not talking about our Canadian men's or women's hockey teams.

Oh, both will be expected to reach the Olympic finals, if not win it all, come February.

But don't be surprised if the stars of the 2006 Winter Games are our long track speed skaters.

Why? Because even the conservative predictions from officials in the sport have Canadians grabbing a fistful of medals in Italy in the New Year.

"Based on where our athletes have been so far ... anywhere between five to seven or eight medals are not unrealistic to expect," Emery Holmik, the high performance director for Speed Skating Canada, told the Sun from Ottawa yesterday.

There. It's out there, now, in black and white. There's no hiding from the expectations.

Even at the low end of Holmik's projection, five medals, Canada would equal the best long track performance in this country's modern-day Olympic history.

Led by Catriona Le May Doan's gold and silver, the Canucks brought home five medals from Nagano in '98.

At the high end of Holmik's range? This team would be making history.

All-time mark

Eight medals would equal the all-time mark set by the long track team in Lake Placid, way back in 1932. Canadians would be doing cartwheels down the streets if that were to happen.

The thing is, it could.

Led by Winnipegger Cindy Klassen, this version of Team Canada has threats at every distance, from the 500-metre sprints to the 5,000m.

Klassen alone is a medal contender in all four individual events she'll enter: the 1,000m, 1,500m, 3,000m and 5,000m.

Fellow Winnipegger Clara Hughes will be front and centre in the 3,000m and 5,000m, Ottawa's Kristina Groves in the 1,500m and 3,000m, possibly even the 5,000m.

On the men's side, Jeremy Wotherspoon of Red Deer, Alta., has his sights on the 500-metre title that's eluded him in the last two Winter Games. Wotherspoon could be a threat in the 1,000m, too, based on World Cup performances this season.

Young skaters like B.C.'s Denny Morrison and Ontario product Christine Nesbitt are considered outside medal shots, but they've helped the men's and women's team pursuit squads, respectively, become gold medal contenders.

That's a dozen events, give or take, in which Canada is a real threat to reach the podium.

So it says here five medals would be a touch on the low side.

"It's appropriate to be a little bit conservative," Holmik said. "Because the reality of the Olympic Games is not everybody who has the potential ends up being a medallist. That's not just in Canada, but across the world.

"Every Olympic Games is different. You go in with certain expectations, you go in with athlete rankings. But Olympic Games come around once every four years. Some people do extra-special things in Olympic Games. All we can do is go in with our athletes as best prepared as possible."

Based on early season results, things are right on track.

Klassen has already set world records in the 1,500m and 3,000m, while winning a handful of medals on the World Cup circuit.

Hughes, Groves and Wotherspoon have also made their share of trips to the podium, giving the Canadian team that all-important winning feeling at just the right time.

"It's really sparked a lot of energy," coach Neal Marshall said in a recent interview. "Everyone's feeling very confident."

The Canadian team will be finalized at the Olympic trials in Calgary, Dec. 27 to Jan. 3.

After that, it's all sights on Turin.

And, quite possibly, on making history on ice.

Contact Paul at pfriesen@wpgsun.com or 632-2788.