In its quest to repeat as Olympic champ, Team Canada has a dilemma: whom to select from its deep pool of young talent
Jeremy Roenick, the headline-grabbing Kings center, told the Los Angeles Times last week that if he isn't named to the U.S. Olympic hockey team, "[USA Hockey] better hope that I don't get a job as [an Olympic] commentator on NBC, or it'd be 'Go, Canada' all the way." This Benedict Arnold in a network blazer, who was not on the roster of finalists from which USA Hockey will choose its 23-man team (to be announced Dec. 19), would most likely be backing a winner if he got the analyst job. The question of who should play on Canada's 2006 team has been that country's national parlor game--and a topic of interest in Olympic circles--for months. As one Team Canada official told SI, "This is tougher than it was in 2002 because of the young talent. And it probably will be even tougher in 2010."
Two forward spots have belatedly opened for Canada, which will unveil its roster on Dec. 21. Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, who played so valiantly for the gold-medal-winning 2002 squad despite a knee injury, called executive director Wayne Gretzky on Dec. 4 to take his name out of consideration. Four days later Pittsburgh owner-star Mario Lemieux, the team captain in Salt Lake City, made his withdrawal official--a decision he had made before being hospitalized on Dec. 7 with an irregular heartbeat. (He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation but could return to the ice as early as next week.) The only other player for whom Gretzky has made no secret of his support since orientation camp in August is Vancouver right wing Todd Bertuzzi, who remains a strong possibility despite having had a mediocre season (eight goals and 25 points through Sunday). If he's chosen, there's a cringe-worthy certainty that NBC will dredge up the video of his criminal assault on former Avalanche center Steve Moore in March 2004.
Depending on the health of Columbus left wing Rick Nash, who was scheduled to return this week after ankle and knee injuries, and Philadelphia forward Simon Gagné, who tore his groin and is expected to be out for two weeks, the next generation of Canadian stars--Penguins center Sidney Crosby, Ottawa center Jason Spezza and Carolina center Eric Staal--may get a shot at being named to the team. While Spezza's chemistry with Senators linemate and Olympic certainty Dany Heatley appears to be an innate advantage, Hockey Canada has some reservations about Spezza's ability to contribute when not centering one of the top two offensive lines. Unlike Spezza, Crosby is comfortable on the wing. "If I could have just one of the three, I'd lean toward Crosby," another Team Canada official said before the meetings. "He's got some of Wayne in him."
Other than Devils netminder Martin Brodeur, goal remains curiously unsettled. Florida's Roberto Luongo, who has been out of sorts since the second week of the season, should be a lock based on his 2004 World Cup work but could still play himself off the team. Coyotes goalie Curtis Joseph, who lost the Olympic starting job to Brodeur after the 2002 opener, appears to have played himself on--if he is content with a back-up role.
As Gretzky often says, unless it wins the gold medal, Canada will have picked the wrong team.
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KEVIN C. COX/WIREIMAGE.COM (STAAL)
THEIR TURIN? Staal (far left), Spezza (19) or Crosby could be tapped by Olympic boss Gretzky.
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (SPEZZA)
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JASON COHN/ICON SMI (CROSBY)
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