Fierce rivals come together for Team Canada

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Wayne Gretzky insists he never worried he might wander into the Team Canada locker room one day and find his Olympic coaching staff in a roiling three-way melee.

Sitting a few feet away from Gretzky, head coach Pat Quinn recalls a different version of the evolution of what has become a fascinating relationship with often bitter NHL rivals Ken Hitchcock and Jacques Martin.

"It started with me winning the wrestling match," Quinn said, prompting laughter from reporters and his co-coaches.

The good-natured banter and the easy way that exists between the three, along with third assistant coach Wayne Fleming, belies a complex relationship that has matured into a strong friendship. It is a relationship that has played a large role in restoring Canada to the pinnacle of international hockey.

After winning a historic gold medal at the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and following it up with an undefeated run through last summer's World Cup of Hockey, the coaching quartet will return to the world stage in February for Canada's gold medal defense in Turin, Italy.

"It's special," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said of the bond between the coaches. "It's strong. All of them want to win. All of them will do anything to win. I think that has made the friendship that much stronger."

Nicholson and Gretzky, executive director of the Canadian Olympic team, could hardly have found more heated rivalries than the ones these three coaches' clubs have experienced.

For the past two seasons, Hitchcock's Philadelphia Flyers have dispatched Quinn's Toronto Maple Leafs in hotly contested playoff series. Martin's Ottawa Senators likewise vanquished Hitchcock's Flyers in 2002 and 2003. Then there's the classic Battle of Ontario, in which Quinn bested Martin in four straight playoff meetings over five years. Twice the Senators lost to the Leafs in a seventh and deciding game. The last loss, in the spring of 2004, cost Martin his coaching job in Ottawa.

"It's like a triangle with the three teams," acknowledged Martin, who is set for his first season as head coach in Florida.

The coaching group is already anticipating a Dec. 26 encounter between the Flyers and Panthers that will mark the first meeting between Martin and Hitchcock since an ugly bench-clearing brawl between the Flyers and Senators late in the 2003-04 season.

"It's kind of Round Two from the Ottawa situation," Hitchcock said with a smile.

"We're all going down to watch," added Quinn, who dubbed Hitchcock and Martin the "Odd Couple" when he had them room together in Salt Lake City.

"Jacques is a neat-nick and I'm not a neat-nick," Hitchcock said.

The Philadelphia coach, who won a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999, points to the staff's experience in the Salt Lake City athletes' village as a defining moment in their relationship.

Hitchcock and Martin roomed together, while Quinn and Fleming shared equally cramped quarters. The men shared washroom facilities, even drawer space -- a marked departure from the upscale hotels favored by NHL teams on the road. To this day, Hitchcock insists that had the coaches opted to stay in a traditional hotel during the tournament, the relationship would never have become what it has.

"Pat and I are big guys," Hitchcock said. "The quarters were so close. The dorm made us."

The Odd Couple label has stuck, and even now when the four men golf together, it's usually Hitchcock and Martin in one cart and Fleming and Quinn in another.

"We give each other a hard time," Hitchcock said.

But he also said they know when it's time to get down to business. Last week, the coaching staff met several days in advance of the five-day orientation camp taking place this week in Vancouver and Kelowna.

"There was maybe five minutes of what was going on with our own groups and then it was, 'Let's get going,'" Hitchcock said.

Canada had been without a gold medal for 50 years heading into the 2002 Olympics. Four years earlier in Nagano, Canada suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Czech Republic in a shootout and then lost the bronze medal game in the first Olympic tournament open to NHL players. In the interim, Gretzky came on board to lead the Olympic team, and shortly after selected a coaching staff that had only a passing knowledge of each other.
Long before the staff began looking at which players would become part of that Olympic roster, the coaches and management team debated long and hard about the type of game they wanted Team Canada to play.

"We discussed many hours how we would do it," Quinn said. "We were one. It was an open book. I really believe you have to delegate and everyone has to be involved."

Ultimately, the group decided to build a team that would play an attacking, puck-possession style of game, a philosophy that carried into the World Cup of Hockey and will be repeated again in Turin.

"Their attention to detail in every aspect is really remarkable," said Gretzky, who has been effusive in his praise of the coaching staff.

Nicholson credits Fleming, a former national team head coach, for being the glue that held the three coaches together. Leading up to the Salt Lake City Games, Fleming traveled the width and breadth of the NHL, meeting with the three coaches and scouting NHL talent.

"That was important because there were some nights the other guys might not have been talking to each other because these guys go at it pretty good," Nicholson said.

Fleming has since been added to Hitchcock's coaching staff in Philly, a reflection of the bond that has evolved.

The Salt Lake City Games started ominously for Canada. Against a backdrop of tremendous national excitement and unparalleled expectation, the team was outclassed by Sweden in the opening game of the round robin. They followed with a desultory win over lowly Germany and a tie against the Czech Republic.

Outside Salt Lake City, Canadian fans and media savaged the team and the coaching staff.

"But inside the dressing room, there was no panic," Nicholson said. "That's the coaching staff that did that, along with Wayne."

The coaching staff made a goaltending change, promoting Martin Brodeur to the No. 1 spot ahead of Curtis Joseph, Quinn's netminder in Toronto at the time, and the team rolled through the elimination portion of the tournament, winning gold against the U.S. with a decisive 5-2 victory.

The win set off spontaneous celebrations across Canada and traffic halted in most major centers as hundreds of thousands of fans took to the streets.

This season sees each of the coaches facing new challenges with their clubs. Hitchcock's Flyers have reloaded under the new collective bargaining agreement and will enter the 2005-06 season as a Stanley Cup favorite.

Martin's Panthers added veteran free agents Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts from Toronto, players who were instrumental in defeating the Senators in the last playoff series.

The Panthers should challenge for a playoff spot, while Quinn's Leafs, always on the verge of one crisis or another in the heart of the hockey universe, have struggled to rebuild under the new economic system and enter the season with many questions marks.

Still, the three will put aside whatever issues are confronting them in mid-February and return to the same cramped living quarters in Italy in the hopes of recapturing the magic of the past.

Said Hitchcock: "There is such a hunger for that feeling again and you don't know if that feeling is going to return for two weeks, two years or two days. But we badly want that feeling back again."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.