Thirty years ago it was almost unthinkable that a Canadian hockey team would lose an international match. Now, not winning a championship is almost expected. That was the outcome again last week during the four-nation Calgary Cup at the Olympic Saddledome, site of the 1988 Olympic hockey tournament. The Canadian Olympic team lost in its first encounter with a group of U.S. minorleague pros who got together just 36
hours before the game. Then the Canadians succumbed to the Czech and Soviet national teams.
The country that gave the game of hockey to the world seems incapable of icing a winning national team. The group wearing the Team Canada colors last week was just the latest attempt at what is for now an insoluble problem. Canada’s hockey pride resides with the national team, but the country’s best players reside in the National Hockey League. Said Olympic team head coach and general manager Dave King: “It’s frustrating.”
A collection of Canadian semipros won the Spengler Cup club champion-
ship last week in Sweden and the Canadian junior team was a contender at the world championships in Czechoslovakia. But at home the national team was quickly eliminated from a chance at the gold or the silver at the Calgary Cup. Canada did capture the bronze after a 6-1 victory over the United States on Jan. 2 in the consolation round.
The essential problem is that in June the NHL spreads the best 18-yearold prospects among its 21 member
teams. Of the 16 Canadians chosen in the first round of the 1986 NHL draft, only one —defenceman Zarley Zalapski—elected to play for Canada. In contrast, only one of the five Americans chosen in the draft’s first round—Los Angeles Kings centre Jimmy Carson—turned pro. The others decided to put their professional careers on hold.
King faces the largely thankless job of preparing Canada’s team for the Olympics. With minimal assistance from the NHL, King must use the only available talent—players from U.S. and Canadian colleges, junior-league players, minor-league pros, players on
the fringe of the NHL and rare individuals like Zalapski, who chose to test himself internationally before trying the NHL. The result is a collection of diverse talents who appear destined to struggle for every victory.
In a major departure, the International Olympic Committee announced last October that it would open up the Games to professional hockey players. Newspaper stories trumpeted that Edmonton Oilers star Wayne Gretzky
could play in the Olympics. But the reality turned out to fall short of the publicity. The NHL will not suspend its schedule during the Olympics next February to make players like Gretzky available. But King said that even if his team could have access to players who have gone on to the NHL, “that would be a start.”
Indeed, national team graduates could transform the Olympic team into a gold-medal contender. The alumni include Edmonton Oiler Glenn Anderson, New York Ranger James Patrick, Winnipeg Jet Paul MacLean, Hartford Whaler Kevin Dineen, Calgary Flame Carey Wilson and New York Islander
Pat Flatley. Like Gretzky, those players will not be available, but, said King, “half a dozen reinforcements would give the national team a fighting chance.”
To challenge the Soviets and Czechs at the Olympics, Team Canada clearly needs its alumni or other major-league players. Without them, King has until next February to otherwise upgrade his squad to the level of Sweden, Finland and the United States, the teams Canada must defeat to win even a bronze medal.
Canada returned to Olympic hockey action in 1980 following a 12-year absence. In the summer of 1985 the first full-time national team in 16 years was formed. Overall, the team’s results in its second season have been largely satisfying. The silver-medal win in the Izvestia tournament in Moscow last fall was Canada’s second ever. The recent three wins and four losses against the touring Moscow Selects team were considered a major achievement. And Team Canada won more exhibition games than it lost against NHL teams last fall.
But the encouraging signs evaporated before national TV audiences last week in Calgary. For many Canadian fans—other than those at the team’s training site in Calgary—it was their first exposure to the national team. The team’s last-place finish in the round-robin series produced caustic reviews. King reacted to the negative press with uncharacteristic anger. Said King: “People out there are watching on TV and they are asking, ‘How did they lose to that team?’ Well, put your skates on and you do the job. It looks great on television. It looks great upstairs in the stands. On the ice, it’s a difficult game.” Added King: “These players are giving us a tremendous effort. Really, all they ever get for their effort usually is to hear they’re going to be replaced by professional players. Personally, I think there’s a good bunch of people in the dressing room and I’m pleased to coach them. I don’t care what the public thinks.”
Unfortunately for King and the Olympic players, many Canadians share the growing conviction that the team will be out of the medals next February. With just over 13 months of preparation time left, the coach remains philosophical. Said King: “One of the goals of our program is improvement. You would like winning to accompany improvement, but there are times when you don’t win, but you improve.” For now, without help from the NHL, improvement may be the only realistic goal.
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