ICE HOCKEY

POWER AND GLORY

For a select few, skating on the Olympic hockey team is the highest honor

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 2 1988
ICE HOCKEY

POWER AND GLORY

For a select few, skating on the Olympic hockey team is the highest honor

Anthony Wilson-Smith February 2 1988

POWER AND GLORY

ICE HOCKEY

For a select few, skating on the Olympic hockey team is the highest honor

For Randy Gregg, lunch arrives in a cardboard bucket filled with fried chicken and limp, paste-colored french fries. The chicken is rapidly cooling and so are the fries, but Gregg has no time to eat. The 31-year-old defenceman is still stuffing his hockey equipment into a large duffel bag that then needs to be loaded onto the bus of the Canadian Olympic hockey team parked outside Calgary’s Father David Bauer Olympic Arena. Less than six months earlier, as a valued member of the Edmonton Oilers, Gregg had attendants to carry his equipment to chartered planes and ate unhurried meals in five-star restaurants. But at the end of last season Gregg, who is also a medical doctor, walked away from the National Hockey League

(NHL) and his estimated $200,000 annual salary to join the Olympic team for $20,000 a year. Although he helped the Oilers win three Stanley Cups, Gregg, who first played for the Olympic team in 1980, says, “I have never done anything that meant more than playing for my country in the Olympics.”

Canadian hockey fans are not used to hearing that sentiment from the country’s top players. Despite being acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost hockey powers, Canada has not won an Olympic gold medal since 1952, when the Edmonton Mercurys were the nation’s entry at the Games in Oslo. In 1961, in Geneva, Switzerland, the Trail Smoke Eaters were the last Canadian team to win the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) world

championship. Most Canadian fans focus their interest on the NHL and such short-lived extravaganzas as last fall’s Canada Cup, won by a Canadian team made up entirely of NHL players. For years Canadian amateur hockey officials have argued passionately for the right to use professional players in the Winter Games. In 1986 the International Olympic Committee finally decided to allow professionals into competition, but Canada’s best and brightest stars will not be participating in Olympic hockey. Says Dave King, general manager and head coach of the Olympic team: “In Europe, you are judged by how many times you are chosen for the national team. Here, prestige seems to begin and end with the NHL.” Without the services of such Canadian superstars as Wayne

Gretzky and Mark Messier of the Oilers and Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins, King’s team will be largely a hodgepodge of minor-leaguers, former college players, unripened NHL prospects and NHL castoffs. The handful of blue-chip players includes Gregg, his former Oiler teammate, goalie Andy Moog, fellow goaltender Sean Burke and highly rated defenceman Zarley Zalapski, a first-round draft choice of the Penguins in 1986. The Canadian team’s roster clearly reflects its dependency on the largess of NHL teams in acquiring players. Many team members are under contract to the NHL, which then agrees to loan them to the Olympic team so that they can gain valuable international experience. But the NHL teams have reserved the right to recall players who had NHL contracts before committing themselves to the Canadian Olympic team, and that has created a problem. Explaining the dilemma last fall, assistant coach and former NHL player Guy Charron declared: “We obviously want guys to improve as much as possible. But if they improve too much, we lose them to the NHL.” If any of the seven Canadian-based NHL teams agree to lend more players to Canada, players already on the Olympic roster might lose their positions. Says King: “We are obviously not going to refuse if we are offered a player who can significantly improve our firepower.” Despite some uncertainty over the final roster, both King and his players believe an Olympic medal is within their grasp, in part because the team has been together longer than the previous Canadian entries. At the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, Canada finished fourth with a highly talented group of players that included 14 current NHL regulars. Still, the talented team suffered from its relative inexperience and the fact that it was put together less than six months before the Games. In contrast, King and his two assistant coaches have been preparing for the upcoming competition in Calgary for three years, molding and refining the team’s strategies. King has admitted that the current group has “considerably less talent” than the 1984 Olympic team, but he has compensated with a meticulous training program, including rigorous off-ice workouts. Says King: “The days of European teams beating us through better conditioning are over and done with. Now, we count on our condition to provide us with an edge.” The skating surface used for international hockey is 4.6 m wider than the standard one, which will mean less body checking than is customary in North American games but a greater demand for strong skating. Says Charron: “This style of game means we usually

prefer the little scooters over the bigger, slower thumpers.”

The Canadian team will depend heavily on the talented goaltending duo of Moog and Burke and on a strong performance from defencemen Gregg and Zalapski. All four players are premier NHL-calibre performers. Moog, 27, is a two-time NHL all-star selection

with the Campbell Conference team, who is expected to join the Pittsburgh Penguins following the Olympics. He joined the national team last fall under a unique arrangement with the IGA grocery chain, which is paying

him an undisclosed salary while he plays for Canada. Burke, 20, was a second-round New Jersey Devils draft choice in 1985 and is expected to join the club after the Games. And Zalapski, 19, who was the first defenceman chosen in the 1986 NHL draft, will report to Pittsburgh. Says Burke of the team’s medal chances: “We will do what we can to achieve what others may think is impossible.”

Many hockey experts believe that King’s coaching provides the team with its most valuable edge. A native of Saskatoon, King, 40, is a former junior-level and university coach who has won championships in almost every hockey category he has been involved in. He first gained international prominence when the Canadian national junior team he was coaching in 1982 won the country’s first world championship in six years of competition at that level. Since then, King has gained a reputation as a consummate tactician and stern taskmaster who invariably badgers his players to perform to the utmost of their abilities. He drives the team-and himself-relentlessly: in one twoweek period in December, the team played exhibition games in Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Ont., Rimouski, Que., and Sydney, N.S., and then flew on to Moscow via Frankfurt, West Germany, to play in the Soviet-sponsored Izvestia Tournament. King’s constant push for perfection means that he is respected but not always liked by his players. Says Gregg, who describes King as a driven man: “Some of the younger guys do not understand that Dave singlehandedly absorbs most of the pressure. By doing so, he shelters the inexperienced guys from the public.”

The team’s Olympic performance may have long-term repercussions on the national program. Some critics suggest that Hockey Canada could save the program’s annual budget of roughly $2.5 million by disbanding the team and entering future Olympics with minor professional players chosen shortly before the Games. Says King, whose contract expires immediately after the Olympics: “We are at a make-or-break point. The public’s response to our performance will tell us whether this program will continue to be viable.”

That issue arouses powerful emotions in King and his players, who argue that the present program is closest to the original Olympic spirit of participation. Many of them feel that the tribulations they have endured as a team have only underscored the significance of playing in the Olympics. Says goaltender Burke: “I have played for my country all over the world, and not many people can say that. No matter where we finish, it has been worth it.” Gregg is equally enthusiastic. “I have won Stanley Cups and played with the best players in hockey,” he says. “But there is something different about wearing that big maple leaf and playing for your country. That is what it is all about.”

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

in Calgary