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Monday, August 24, 2009
Smyth looking to play role of veteran; Spezza, Niedermayer look to right wrongs


CALGARY, Alberta -- They poured off of planes Monday morning and into the afternoon, arriving from all over North America.

Some arrived with Stanley Cup rings and others with Olympic gold medals attached to their résumés, while some came with nothing but nerves. In every case, though, these 46 Canadian Olympic hopefuls arrived with the same desire; these next few days of workouts will be the first steps toward what they hope will end with a gold medal in Vancouver in February.

"I think the biggest goal is to win the gold, and obviously here in Canada, everyone wants to call it pressure," Los Angeles Kings forward Ryan Smyth said. "They can call it pressure, but I think it's just something to thrive on."

A veteran of many international competitions, including the gold-medal-winning team from 2002 and seventh-place finishers from 2006, Smyth is part of a group that will be hoping to recapture the glory while burying the disappointment.

"The expectations were so high because we came off the gold medal in '02," he said of the Turin Games. "We were defending champs and everybody wants to play their best against you, so you've got to be ready and prepared and we weren't obviously that. Like I said, it's a bitter taste in your mouth."

Over the years, Smyth has seen his role at these kinds of events evolve.

He recalled the orientation camp in the fall of 2001, also held here in Calgary, and how he had to get over the shock of being in the same dressing room as Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux. Yzerman, of course, is now the executive director of the Canadian Olympic team.

"When I was a so-called young guy in '01, you could just see his leadership, his excitement, his making sure everybody feels welcome whether you're young or old," Smyth said of Yzerman. "I learned a lot from just watching him and got to know him over the years.

"Being around Stevie and Mario in the locker room and on the golf course, just making you feel comfortable, I think that orientation camp for me was to get the awestruck-ness, that awe feeling, out of the way so that when February came around, [you] just go out and play."

Although he is reluctant to put himself into the same class as an Yzerman or Lemieux, he acknowledged his role at this camp is now of a similar nature: He's trying to impart some of the things he's learned over the years and make younger players feel comfortable so they can get on with the business of playing hockey.

"I've gained so much over the years that I just want to deliver that experience," Smyth said. "It's not going to come easy; there's so many great young players coming up taking jobs that you've got to be ready and focused from game to game, from shift to shift. You have to work for everything and I do, and I like that. I thrive on that."

One thing in Smyth's favor will be the chance to shine with a new team: He was dealt to the emerging Kings in the offseason.

"New kick start, new life," he said. "Obviously, things didn't go very well in Colorado with not winning. This is going to be exciting. Like you said, young energetic team; actually looking forward to meeting Drew Doughty and actually having Jack Johnson on the same team after he nailed me." (Smyth was joking about a now-infamous crushing hit from Johnson during the 2007-08 season that sent Smyth to the hospital.)

'Try and right the wrong'

Many recall the late addition of Jarome Iginla to the 2001 orientation camp as one of the seminal moments in the building of what would become a gold-medal team. An afterthought at the time, Iginla was a top player during the tournament and is a lock to make the 2010 team.

This year's late addition was Ottawa center Jason Spezza, who has put up terrific offensive numbers but has been criticized for being too one-dimensional. He acknowledged not being named to the initial camp list (he was added after Joe Sakic announced his retirement) was a wake-up call.

"It was a bit of an eye-opener," he said Monday. "I didn't see a real reason why I should be left off the list. But obviously, I've got to change my game a little bit."

As for the ongoing saga of his former linemate Dany Heatley, Spezza said he hopes the situation gets cleared up quickly.

"I've known where Heater stood the whole way. All the guys on the team know where he stands. Hopefully the team can accommodate him, and we can just move on come training camp," Spezza said. "We had a real disappointing year last year. I'm pretty motivated this summer to try and right the wrong."

Niedermayer back at camp

One factor in the Canadians' stunning collapse in 2006 was the failure of the blue line to quickly and accurately move the puck out of their own zone. One of the reasons for that failure was the absence of Scott Niedermayer, who pulled out of the Olympics to undergo knee surgery.

Even now, it is a difficult topic for Niedermayer to revisit.

"It was really difficult having to make a decision like that. Wanting to play for your country is a huge thrill and an honor and everybody's said that before, but it's all true," he said Monday. "And I was sort of playing with something that I'd played with. It just felt like to continue on for a couple of months after that, I don't know if I could have really been at my best. And you also feel some responsibility to your NHL club. So I felt I was in a tough spot. Not a decision I want to have to make again."

Although Niedermayer struggled with whether or not to retire after his Anaheim Ducks captured the Stanley Cup in 2007, it seemed a no-brainer that once he decided to keep playing, he would return for this season, because the Olympics are being held in his home province of British Columbia.

He acknowledged being more reflective these past couple of seasons as the clock ticks slowly toward the end of a Hall of Fame career.

"I think, in general, the last couple of years I've been that way, just looking at things differently, not sure how much longer it goes on," said Niedermayer, who turns 36 at the end of the month. "When you're in the middle of it, in your mid-20s and stuff, things look a little different than where I am now."