Hockey

IS THIS CUP HALF EMPTY?

World tourney misses some stars and the old geopolitics

CHARLIE GILLIS September 6 2004
Hockey

IS THIS CUP HALF EMPTY?

World tourney misses some stars and the old geopolitics

CHARLIE GILLIS September 6 2004

FOR A SECOND, it felt like old times. Two days into training camp at the World Cup of Hockey, Pat Quinn, coach of Team Canada, told reporters he was seeking “traitors” in Europe to spy on his opponents—anything to get an edge on the dastardly Russians or Czechs. It was a delightful bit of hokum, summoning a time when geopolitics coloured every on-ice encounter between Canadians and Soviets. It was also a sad reminder: without the Cold War plot lines to stir us, is the World Cup of Hockey worth watching?

Find out in the next two weeks. The tournament, which is organized jointly by the National Hockey League and the NHL Players’ Association, is now 13 years removed from its precursor, the Canada Cup. And the ghosts of series past can be awfully hard to top. Between 1972 and 1991, fans on both sides of the Atlantic were treated to six great clashes of styles and on-ice philosophy, underlaid with the political drama of the period. In those days, it was democracy against totalitarianism, the dash of Lafleur versus the genius of Kharlamov, and, frankly, a little pre-tournament espionage wouldn’t have been out of the question.

Fast-forward one generation, and almost every international-calibre Russian player is hauling down a seven-figure NHL salary. Most happily nosh with their North American teammates, and an increasing number view the Stanley Cup as their ultimate prize. To complicate matters, professional players have twice been invited to the Winter Olympics, which forced the World Cup into an eight-year hiatus after its 1996 debut. “I think the Olympics have replaced the Canada and World Cups as the ultimate barometer of hockey supremacy,” says Joe Pelletier, coauthor of a history book on the summit tournaments, from the 1972 classic up to the modern World Cup. “European players grow up dreaming of the gold medal just like North American kids dream of the Stanley Cup.”

Maybe that’s why players haven’t exactly been breaking down the arena doors to get into this tournament. As Team Canada practised at the University of Ottawa last week, the no-shows were as conspicuous as the newcomers, most notably the physical defensive tandem of Rob Blake and Chris Pronger. The oft-injured but supremely talented Mario Lemieux was there, but not the recuperating Steve Yzerman—to some the team’s heart and soul. The Americans, Czechs and Swedes have all lost key players, too, while no fewer than five Russians have decided not to play for their team.

Most of the absentees have blamed nagging injuries or, if they’re free agents, insurance concerns. But others seem to lack the old-time hockey spirit that you’d expect from players given the opportunity to represent their countries. The Russians, for instance, appear to be simply avoiding a team in disarray (goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin described the squad as “total chaos”). A few, however, acknowledge that between the NHL, the Olympics and the annual International Ice Hockey Federation championships in Europe, they’ve simply been playing too much. Sami Kapanen, a speedy Finn who plays for the Philadelphia Flyers and represented his country at the 2002 Winter Games, passed on the World Cup because of exhaustion. Even the indefatigable Scott Niedermayer, who’s been wearing the maple leaf in tournaments since his junior days, is feeling the effects. “You’re playing a lot of hockey over the course of four, five or six years when you’re counting these events,” said the veteran Canadian defenceman after practice in Ottawa. “It’s exciting to be part of them. I guess you get the rest when you can.”

The good news for organizers is that fans are bearing up as well as Niedermayer—for now. This month’s eight-team event kicks off with an NHL lockout in the offing, so the die-hards are soaking up as much puck as they can get. And in Canada, nothing produces buzz like hockey stars. Last week, autograph hounds clad in red jerseys lined the barricades around the University of Ottawa Sports Complex, hoping to catch a peek of their heroes leaving practice. Kathleen Desmarais, 36, used her cellphone camera to get a snapshot of Joe Sakic. “This feels more at home, they’re closer to us,” she said when asked how the World Cup compares to the Olympics. “It’s more of an event where people can get glimpses of them here and there, whereas when they’re at the Olympics, they’re farther away. I think this is better.”

There are even a few new plot lines. Wayne Gretzky, a fixture on Team Canada during the ’80s and ’90s and architect of the current squad, increasingly sees the Americans as Canada’s greatest foe, a theory affirmed last week when the U.S. beat Canada 3-1 in an exhibition match. “That Canada-Soviet rivalry was something the Canadian public geared themselves to watch,” Gretzky told Maclean’s. “Now it’s more of a Canada-U.S. rivalry, and I think Canadian fans are appreciating that the American hockey system has gotten a lot better in the last decade. Personally, I expect it to get better in the future.” If the Americans falter, he added, as many as four other teams—the Russians, Swedes, Finns or Czechs—could step forward to win this month’s championship.

It’s not quite the stuff of John le Carré novels. Or, for that matter, the most hohum of Canada Cups. But with the NHL now voicing doubts about allowing players to attend the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, the World Cup may finally be getting its chance. If a lockout drags into January, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said, players won’t be attending the Olympics. The next meaningful international tournament, then, would be another World Cup, where scores would be settled, rivalries renewed and new grudges born. In the absence of geopolitical conflict, that’s about all a hockey fan can ask.

‘IT WAS TIME TO SPEAK UP’

We waited a while to see it, but at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Wayne Gretzky finally showed his dark side. With the players he’d hand-picked in his role as Team Canada’s executive director under fire for tepid play, the Great One unleashed a post-game torrent of nationalistic vitriol, summing up the criticism as a “crock of crap.” The diatribe bore echoes of Phil Esposito’s soliloquy in defence of his beleaguered teammates during the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets. It also solidified Gretzky’s place as spiritual leader of Canadian hockey: buoyed by their leader’s words, the Canadians bounced back to take Olympic gold. Now the director of Canada’s World Cup team, Gretzky talked to CHARLIE GILLIS about patriotism, politics and the great frozen game.

You’ve become a kind of rainmaker in Canadian hockey since Salt Lake. How does that sit with you?

We’re taught at a very young age in Canada that it’s an exciting thing to represent your country. I think whether you’re a manager, a coach, a player or part of the training staff, you’re always honoured to be involved in one of these events. It’s a thrill.

Did you mean to sound like Esposito during that post-game news conference in 2002?

Nah. There was a combination of things that led up to what I said. As a group, we were starting to feel the pressure that had been on us since the start of the Games. You could feel it in the locker room. So it wasn’t planned; it was one of those things that just happens. There had been a late hit in the game on one of our players, and Canadian hockey had been taking cheap shots for years in the European media. I just thought it was time to speak up.

Are there too many world tournaments in elite hockey?

It’s something you’d want to ask the players. For me, I guess it comes down to this: when I call up players to tell them I want them to be part of Team Canada, each one is genuinely thrilled by the offer. They seem to relish it, whatever the tournament. So at this point, I’d say no.

Is it true you were one of three players who turned up for a team luncheon with [then-prime minister] Pierre Trudeau after the 1981 Canada Cup?

Yeah, but I don’t know if I want to go there. It makes everybody look bad. You have to understand that we’d gone to camp in June for that tournament, so we’d been [in Montreal] for seven or eight weeks, and everybody had made arrangements to go home. I just happened to be one of the guys not racing to get out of town. It turned out to be a nice luncheon with the prime minister. I was there with Larry Robinson. I think Butch Goring showed up, too.

When you played with him on Team Canada in 1987, could you have imagined being Mario Lemieux’s manager?

Ha, ha. No, you don’t think that far ahead. I wasn’t even on a line with Mario until [coach] Mike Keenan put us together about three-quarters of the way through that tournament. So I guess things can change a lot.