Manitoba looking great

It's not as big as the last time, but it's every bit as good.

Five athletes and two alternates make up the Manitoba contingent for Team Canada at the Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy, next month.

That's down from eight 'Tobans who competed in Salt Lake City four years ago.

But the Fab Five could match, possibly even surpass, the hardware haul from 2002, when an all-time Winter Games high of six medals came back to this province.

Manitoba's best medal hope -- indeed, Canada's top threat -- is long track speed skater Cindy Klassen of Winnipeg, a contender in all four of her individual events, plus the team pursuit.

The others shooting for the podium, all Winnipeggers, are fellow long trackers Clara Hughes, Mike Ireland and Shannon Rempel, along with hockey player Jennifer Botterill.

Hughes has already made history, as the first Canadian to win medals at both the Summer (cycling) and Winter Games. At 33, she remains a contender in the distance events, the 3,000 and 5,000 metres.

She'll also team up with Rempel, an up-and-coming sprinter, and Klassen in the team pursuit, a new Olympic event in which Canada is a gold medal contender.

"You don't get these people every year," long-time speed skating coach Lori Derraugh told the Sun. "They come along every decade. If that. Who knows when we'll have someone else who'll repeat what Cindy and Clara and Shannon are doing."

Ireland, 32, is also a Games veteran, having suited up in Lillehammer in 1994 and Salt Lake City. He missed Nagano in '98 with an injury.

Most experts would consider Ireland a long-shot, since he's coming off a serious concussion that didn't allow him to start training until the fall.

Botterill is virtually certain to earn a medal, as the women's hockey team is expected to meet the U.S. in the gold medal game.

Speed skater Brittany Schussler and goaltender Sami Jo Small will go to Turin as alternates, competing only as injury replacements.

In Small's case, not suiting up means she wouldn't receive a medal even if Canada were to win one.