Friday, April 15, 2005
Updated: April 29, 8:01 PM ET
Canada capitalizing on depth of talent
By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com
CALGARY The changing of the guard doesn't occur only at Buckingham Palace.
The World Hockey Championship is closing in, and a quick check of Canada's roster finds a slew of marquee names conspicuous by their absence.
No Steve Yzerman, for instance. No Joe Sakic, either. No Mario Lemieux. No Chris Pronger. No Jarome Iginla.
No Brendan Shanahan. No Joe Nieuwendyk. No Eric Lindros.
Hockey royalty, all.
Some of those famous names declined invitations due to conditioning reasons, injury problems or a dearth of interest, all understandable given the peculiar circumstances surrounding this NHL-less year, but many others have undoubtedly seen their last duty internationally.
A new wave of Canadian hockey begun at the 2002 Olympics and continued through the 2004 World Cup is upon us.
"All this does is underline the tremendous depth of talent we're lucky enough to have in Canada," New York Rangers' coach Tom Renney, an assistant to Marc Habscheid for this year's entry, pointed out. "This is the type of cycle you strive for, new players moving in, establishing themselves, after learning from the last wave. That's the best way, the healthiest way, to always assure yourself a competitive team.
"The credit for the number of good players available is pretty widespread. It goes all the way down the line, to the minor hockey programs and coaches in our country who nurture this talent at a critical time in its development.
"We're very, very fortunate to be in this position. If a key guy can't play, for one reason or another, there's always another as good, or almost as good, there to take his place."
Given the very particular circumstances of this lockout year, the development rate at the international level for many of the youngsters on this team should be accelerated. Which in itself is a positive thing.
"As a coach, what you're looking for is a mix of emerging young talent and veteran leadership," Renney continued. "And Hockey Canada has always done a great job in that regard. You never see a major overhaul, but there's always a few new faces, eager to be part of this, ready to step into the void.
"Look at a guy like Scotty Hannan. He wasn't even on many people's radar before the World Cup. Now he's a player who could play on this team for a lot of years."
When compared with other recent gold medal winning Canadian teams, this is a young group. Kris Draper, of the Detroit Red Wings' Grind Line fame, has the distinction of being the old coot, at 33.
Nowhere is the gradual change more evident than on the blueline, where a new Big Four made up of Robyn Regehr, Ed Jovanovski, Hannan and Wade Redden has been inaugurated. Jovanovski, who helped Canada to a gold medal at the Salt Lake Games, is the veteran of the new corps.
Rob Blake, Al MacInnis, Scott Stevens and Adam Foote, all mainstays for Canada for as long as many fans can remember, have been quietly, but efficiently, replaced. Ray Bourque retired.
Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger are still very much in the mix, but the likes of Chris Phillips and Sheldon Souray, both entering this program at this level for the first time, are fully prepared to move in.
The idea is to seamlessly shift from one generation to the next without missing a beat.
Up front, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Shane Doan are, after the requisite grooming, expected to upgrade from subsidiary to starring roles. Columbus Blue Jackets sniper Rick Nash is the wunderkind in this current mix.
Considering Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis, all sure bets to make this team, aren't here and Canada remains the pre-tournament favorite, speaks volumes about that development system Renney was praising.
By any country's standards, this is an almost absurd abundance of riches.
"It's almost a ritual, seeing the young guys linger in the background, watching, learning, and then eventually picking up the torch themselves," said Team Canada general manager Steve Tambellini. "Mario learning from Wayne, Joe Sakic learning from Mario and now Joe Thornton learning from Sakic. It's a progression, each a different link in a very special chain."
A chain that shows no sign of breaking, or even weakening, anytime soon.
"Our world junior team this year had an amazing amount of talent," marveled Renney. "Arguably as dominant at that tournament as any team ever. That's an exciting thing for everyone involved in hockey in our country.
"Those guys, the Sydney Crosbys and Dion Phaneufs, are the next wave. These are already big-time players. And they'll get their chance here, if they want it, once they're ready.
"It's vitally important to only put people in positions they're ready to handle. But it's always inevitably up to the player.
"You can only work on the car so long. Eventually, you've got to take it out the garage and see if it can race."
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.