VANCOUVER – Sidney Crosby has a pretty good idea of what it takes to be part of Canada’s Olympic hockey roster.
He never had any doubt that his linemate with the Pittsburgh Penguins deserved a spot on the team heading to Sochi.
Chris Kunitz was named to Canada’s 25-man roster on Tuesday, one of the more controversial selections announced by executive director Steve Yzerman.
Critics suggest that the 34-year-old was picked largely because of his chemistry with Crosby on Pittsburgh’s top line, but the Penguins captain said Kunitz was more than deserving.
“As a teammate, as a friend, I see what he does every day and I have a great appreciation for what he brings to our team and the type of player he is,” said Crosby. “If anyone could have a good idea I think it’s me, spending every day with him, playing with him.
“I think he’s earned every right to be a part of this team.”
Crosby, who scored in overtime to lift Canada past the United States in the gold-medal game at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, had trouble finding suitable linemates early in that tournament.
He and Kunitz have combined for 110 points so far this season heading into Tuesday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks, Crosby’s first at Rogers Arena since the Olympic finale.
“(Kunitz has) worked hard and he’s done a lot of things to earn the right to play on the team,” said Crosby, who leads the NHL with 23 goals and 40 assists. “It’s important to every guy but to see it up close with a teammate, (a) linemate, it’s pretty neat. I’m definitely happy for him.”
And while the Cole Harbour, N.S., native was adamant that Kunitz earned his spot, the player in question said lining up next to Canada’s biggest talent night in and night out didn’t hurt his chances.
“It helps a lot. I’ve played with a lot of good players,” said Kunitz, who played for his country at the 2008 world championship. “Playing with Sid kind of elevates that a little bit more but going out there every night trying to focus on your day job put me in the right mindset to get my foot in the door for Team Canada.
“You’ve got to go out and produce every night and that’s something I’ve worked hard at—trying to be consistent throughout the years.”
The Regina native—who has 23 goals and 24 assists this season and made Canada’s roster ahead of the likes of Claude Giroux, Logan Couture and Martin St. Louis—has heard the doubters who believe he’s only on the team because of Crosby.
“Everyone’s got the right to their opinion,” said Kunitz. “Our coaches can change the lineup whenever they want. I’ve got to go out and earn that and I think I’ve done that so far.”
Yzerman said Canada’s management team was convinced that Kunitz belonged on the roster heading to Russia next month, and not just because he plays with Crosby.
“He’s a hard-nosed player, a skilled player,” said Yzerman in Toronto. “Yes he plays with Crosby and he’s a great contributor, not only to that line, but to his team, whether it be 5-on-5 or on the power play.
“A lot of people have asked me ‘Is Kunitz being helped by Sidney Crosby?’ They help each other. He’s a tremendous player and ultimately, we asked ourselves, does he belong on this team and the answer is ‘Yes.'”
For his part, Crosby said he felt for Yzerman and the rest of the Canadian brass that was forced to make a number of tough calls in picking the team.
“I just couldn’t imagine being those guys having to make those decisions, especially having to answer for them,” said Crosby. “There’s nothing you can say about the guys that didn’t make it. There’s not a lot of faults in their game so it really comes down to some big decisions but they have a lot of great hockey minds.
“We’ve got a great team and it will be up to us to find a way to win.”