MANNHEIM, Germany – Mark Messier’s leadership skills are being put to a different kind of test.
The general manager of Canada’s entry at the IIHF World Hockey Championship is facing a couple unexpected decisions less than a week into the tournament. Chief among them is figuring out what to do with a roster that includes just 11 forwards after captain Ryan Smyth was sidelined with a fractured left ankle.
“I think you always come in here hoping for the best but preparing for the worst,” Messier said in assessing the situation Tuesday.
There is no simple or obvious way to replace Smyth, who was projected to be the cornerstone of a team loaded with skilled young players.
Messier expects to name a new captain before his team faces Switzerland on Wednesday (TSN, 2:15 p.m. ET). He won’t be able to add any players until after the game and only has three remaining spots?two for skaters and one for a goalie.
Junior forward Jordan Eberle has been with the team as an alternate and is likely to be given one of the skater spots. Even Messier seems a little unsure about what to do with the other, acknowledging that a good player might be available after the second round of the NHL playoffs while noting that he’s concerned about potentially disrupting the balance of the squad.
“We’ve got to be conscious of the other 22 guys that are here,” said Messier. “I’m a big believer in the chemistry and the feeling on a team.”
There is clearly a good spirit among this group of players, who were roaring with laughter while kicking around a soccer ball for 20 minutes before Tuesday’s practice. The biggest thing Messier has to decide is whether a group that features just two guys over the age of 28 can withstand the pressure that will come later in the event.
The new captain is expected to come from the current group of alternates: Ray Whitney, Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry and Francois Beauchemin.
While a case could be made for each of them, the 38-year-old Whitney looks like the front-runner. He’s played over 1,000 NHL games and coach Craig MacTavish believes experience is an integral part of the captain’s role.
“There are a variety of issues that occur in even a tournament as quick as this,” said MacTavish. “Sometimes the captain just has to put things in perspective for the rest of the group in the most positive fashion. I think that’s probably the biggest responsibility.”
No one has done that better over the years than Smyth, who left one final message for his teammates before heading home. He scrawled “BRING BACK THE GOLD” on a whiteboard in the team’s dressing room and signed it “Smytty.”
The next challenge comes from a Swiss team that has proven itself to be a worthy opponent in major international events. Not only did Canada memorably lose to Switzerland at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, it needed Sidney Crosby’s shootout heroics to pull out a narrow victory at the Vancouver Games.
“The recent history would lead you to believe the gap is closing between the teams,” said MacTavish.
Canadian-born Swiss coach Sean Simpson still sees a pretty big divide.
“Let’s not take that too far,” said Simpson. “For Switzerland to beat Canada even once is a big success. Of all the times Switzerland has played Canada, their percentage is not too good.”
He recently took over from long-time national team coach Ralph Krueger and has brought a roster that includes just seven players who competed at the Olympics. The Swiss don’t have any of their NHLers?although goalie Martin Gerber is here along with 17-year-old forward Nino Niederreiter, one of the top prospects in the upcoming draft.
Switzerland will know exactly what to expect as both Simpson and consultant Andy Murray have had extensive involvement with various Canadian national teams over the years. MacTavish is familiar with both men.
“With that combination, they’ll be very well prepared,” said MacTavish. “I’d like to wish them well, but I really can’t.”
The one Canadian player who will be anxious to see the end of that game is Eberle, the 19-year-old from Regina who hopes its the final one he’ll have to watch from the stands.
The Edmonton Oilers prospect could be added to the roster as soon as Thursday and is hoping to get the call.
“They’ve told me just to be ready,” said Eberle. “With Smytty out, hopefully I’ll be in the lineup. They just told me to stay ready?you’re going to get your chance.”
No matter what decisions are made by Messier in the coming days, this tournament remains full of opportunity for a variety of young Canadian players. And they fully intend to compete for gold.
“Teams win hockey games,” said Canadian forward Brooks Laich. “The best team is going to win the tournament. It’s not going to be the team with the best players, it’s going to be who can execute the best.”