SASKATOON – The gut-wrenching wait is about to end for the 30 or more NHL players considered candidates for Canada’s Olympic hockey team.
General manager Steve Yzerman and his staff gathered Tuesday for a final meeting to decide on the 23-man roster that will compete for Canada at the Vancouver Winter Games in February.
The announcement will be made at noon ET on Wednesday at the WorldFest venue at the world junior hockey championship in Saskatoon. Canada’s Olympic broadcast consortium will have exclusive rights to the announcement, which will be carried live on some 13 networks, including CTV, TSN and Rogers Sportsnet.
It will be euphoria for those whose names are called and crushing disappointment for those left off a team that will have the rare opportunity to battle for gold in its home country.
No country cares more about hockey than Canada, or has the sheer number of world-class players to choose from. Star players will be left out. Debates will rage over who should or shouldn’t have been picked.
As Martin Brodeur recently put it: “It is the ultimate for hockey.”
While most of the players are obvious picks, there are really only two who are beyond discussion – Pittsburgh Penguins star centre Sidney Crosby and Brodeur, the New Jersey Devils goaltender who is the NHL’s all-time leader in wins and shutouts and who is still at the top of his game.
If the team is shut out of the medals, as it was in Turin, Italy, at the 2006 Games, fingers will be pointed at Yzerman, a 2002 Olympic gold medallist and three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Detroit Red Wings, and the staff that assembled in Saskatoon to make the final decisions.
Joining Yzerman were Detroit general manager Ken Holland as well as former GMs Kevin Lowe and Doug Armstrong, head coach Mike Babcock of the Red Wings, and Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson and vice-president Johnny Misley.
Together, they watched hundreds of games over the past two seasons, tracking any player with a vague hope of making the squad. They got together every few months to compare notes and analyze performances, most recently in December. Other experts, including coaching legend Scotty Bowman, were brought in to watch players and offer their opinions.
So far, the players who appear to be locks to make the team are:
-Goaltenders Brodeur, Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks and, thanks to his Stanley Cup heroics last spring, Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins.
-Defencemen Scott Niedermayer (Anaheim), Chris Pronger (Philadelphia), Shea Weber (Nashville), Duncan Keith (Chicago) and Dan Boyle (San Jose).
-Forwards Crosby, the San Jose trio of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau, Rick Nash (Columbus), Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, and Jarome Iginla (Calgary).
There is little debate on the goaltenders, last year’s rookie sensation Steve Mason and Carolina’s Cam Ward having played their way out of contention.
Defence is another matter, as there is likely only two spots open for another seven candidates.
Some like Brent Seabrook to play with his regular partner Keith for some instant chemistry. Mike Green (Washington) is a dynamic offensive player who is in the top 25 in league scoring and is sixth in plus-minus at plus-15, but is said to have defensive shortcomings.
Robyn Regehr (Calgary) is as strong in his own end as any one, while rangy Jay Bouwmeester (Calgary) has extensive international experience. Another Flame, bruising Dion Phaneuf, has not had a good year.
Names that filtered out as being under consideration include Drew Doughty, the gifted young Los Angeles rearguard who will likely be a lock in 2014, if the NHL goes to Russia, and Dallas veteran Stephane Robidas.
Selecting another five forwards won’t be easy either.
Martin St. Louis is in the top 10 in league scoring and should make the team again, but while his Tampa Bay teammate Vincent Lecavalier has picked up his scoring, he looks to be out of contention.
Philadelphia’s Kerry Carter and Mike Richards were strong candidates last summer, but less so now. Richards still has a shot for his strong penalty killing, and he has 16 goals this season.
Eric Staal (Carolina) has all the talent to make it and his younger brother Jordan (Pittsburgh) may just be the physical checking forward they want.
Brendan Morrow (Dallas) is strong at both ends of the ice, Team Canada veteran Ryan Smyth (Los Angeles) is back from an injury that stalled a strong comeback season, and Brad Richards (Dallas), also on a comeback, is in the top 15 in league scoring.
Many like young Jonathan Toews (Chicago) to make the team for his skill, reliability and promise for the future.
But there may yet be surprises.
Big left-winger Milan Lucic (Boston) was invited to the team’s summer camp and is on the mend from a sprained ankle. He should be ready for the Games, where on an NHL-size ice surface, his bruising, intimidating style could make an impact. Plus, he’s from Vancouver.
His teammate Patrice Bergeron, a strong faceoff man with a scoring touch, is another candidate as is Mike Fisher of the Ottawa Senators.
And no one mentions Mike Cammalleri (Montreal) or Dustin Penner (Edmonton), who each have 19 goals this season. Cammalleri, a left-winger, is third in the league with 16 even-strength goals and is plus-12.