Sports

In the end, it’s only hockey

A fellow player’s illness casts a pall over a pre-Olympic camp

JAMES DEACON September 17 2001
Sports

In the end, it’s only hockey

A fellow player’s illness casts a pall over a pre-Olympic camp

JAMES DEACON September 17 2001

In the end, it’s only hockey

A fellow player’s illness casts a pall over a pre-Olympic camp

Sports

JAMES DEACON

It was supposed to be hockey week in Canada. The country’s best players were lacing up for a preOlympic get-to-know-ya in Calgary—37 hopefuls auditioning for 23 spots on the team that will go to the Winter Games next February in Salt Lake City. The math had both fans and insiders speculating on possible line combinations, whether any of the youngsters invited to camp would crack the lineup, and which of four great goalies would be named No. 1. And there were all those juicy asides: a headache-free Eric Lindros in pads again; a sober Theo Fleury back from rehab; an intense Mario Lemieux wearing the maple leaf again; and a serious Wayne Gretzky playing the heavy in all-black civvies. For hockey glut-

tons, it was an all-you-can-eat buffet.

But then, just before practice on Day 3, everyone lost their appetite. Back in Montreal, Canadiens captain Saku Koivu was diagnosed with abdominal cancer, and the news hit Father David Bauer arena like a Scott Stevens bodycheck. The prognosis was uncertain for the popular Koivu. So when the workout finally began, the players seemed lisdess and quiet. At one point, former Hab Mark Recchi—Koivus roommate before being traded to Philadelphia, and still a close friend—huddled along the side boards with another former teammate, goaltender Patrick Roy. Roy’s face was obscured by his mask, but Recchi’s puffy eyes said plenty. “I just want to get to Montreal as soon as I can,” an emotional Recchi said later, “to spend some time with him.”

Sport is often great entertainment and occasionally even uplifting—but it was no

match for the harshness of Koivus story. Only 26 and engaged to be married, the Finn is one of sport’s true gendemen, stoic and committed even during the Habs’ recent woeful seasons. While he’d been plagued by injuries—he missed 28 games last year with a knee injury—he’d worked hard to be fit for the opening of the Habs’ training camp. “We’re definitely still in shock,” his winger, Brian Savage, said for the rest of the Canadiens. “He had his best summer working out and now his world has been turned upside down.”

It was clear from the demeanour of the players in Calgary that Koivu was still on their minds even when camp broke. Yet sometime between now and December, when team boss Gretzky, his assistant Kevin Lowe and head coach Pat Quinn have to choose their final Olympic roster, the excitement will come back. Nothing stirs sports fans’ blood in Canada like in-

ternational hockey. And by then, the hard personnel decisions will seem important again. Among other things, Quinn said, the camp “underlined that our decisions, starting in goal, are not going to be easy.”

That was evident in the non-contact scrimmages on the large ice surface at Father Bauer arena. They were spirited, hard-skating affairs. Lindros and Fleury, perhaps with more to prove, shone particularly brightly in the all-star shinny. Keith Primeau and Owen Nolan were impressive, too. And who can choose between Roy, Martin Brodeur, Curtis Joseph and Ed Belfour in goal? Or which four of the nine centres in camp will end up taking the faceoffs in Salt Lake?

Until someone beats them, the worldand Olympic-champion Czechs are still No. 1. But this Canadian team offers more hope for gold than the 1998 squad simply by having the unretired Lemieux and a healthy Paul Kariya on the roster. Gretzky and company are trying to improve in other ways as well. They hope to negate the European teams’ usual skating advantage

by choosing players with more speed and puck-handling ability. And they can’t just pick whoever’s having the best NHL season—that’s not the same game. “This is the best hockey anywhere, very competitive, very high speed,” said Glen Sather, who headed Canadian teams at the 1994 world championships and the 1996 World Cup. “But a lot of players can’t play at this tempo, even a lot of the better players. They can’t adjust from the NHL to this.” For a four-day, one-mistake-and-you’reout tournament, the natural impulse is to choose veterans. But they hope to blend some kids into the lineup, and lightningquick forwards Alex Tanguay and Simon

Gagné, both 21, and mobile defenceman Eric Brewer, 22, played so well last week that the coaches will be hard-pressed to not include them in February. “This is great, awesome,” enthused Brewer, whose grin revealed a sure sign of youth—he has all his own teeth. “The biggest thing a young guy like me can do is play as well as I can and milk it for all the experience I can get. It’s a privilege just to be here.”

It will feel less like a privilege in February if things go poorly. A hockey-mad nation expects nothing less than victory—to erase the stain of Nagano and the dispiriting 1996 World Cup. That’s why Gretzky made sure to add Steve Yzerman. Teams need leaders and role players, and Yzerman, 36, provides both. He’s won Stanley Cups, he understands the Olympic pressures and he shares his buddy Gretzky’s passion for Olympic glory. He watched other athletes in Nagano who’d won gold, and he’s driven to get one for the men’s hockey team—and for the country. “We all,” he says, “walk a little taller, with our heads higher, when we win.” ESI