SASKATOON – It’s the call Canadian hockey players dream of getting – official notification that they will play for Team Canada at the Olympics.
Those calls came in all sorts of ways Wednesday. Sidney Crosby was in a Pittsburgh Penguins team meeting and heard it later on his voice mail. Jonathan Toews’ mother got the call on his spare cellphone and ran into his room to tell him.
One Chicago Blackhawks defenceman – Team Canada assistant general manager Kevin Lowe wouldn’t say if it was Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook – answered with an expletive.
“But it was an expletive of excitement,” Lowe explained on the happy day for the 23 players chosen to represent Canada at the Vancouver Olympics in February.
“This is a special honour,” Crosby told reporters in New Jersey before facing the Devils on Wednesday night. “I’m pretty proud of it.
“From here on in it’s going to be a pretty popular subject, not that it wasn’t already. To be able to put faces on the team; I think everyone is getting more and more excited for it, and this is the next step in that process.”
Months of public speculation and debate in the media and in coffeeshops across the country over which players should make the team ended in the vast WorldFest hall, where executive director Steve Yzerman and his management team read off the names before about 4,000 giddy supporters and a national television audience.
It was no surprise that Crosby, the scoring star who will carry much of the load of the country’s sky-high expectations, was named after he was controversially left off the aging team that finished a feeble seventh at the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.
Goaltending great Martin Brodeur and his backup Roberto Luongo, defence stalwarts Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger and forwards Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash and Joe Thornton are the only returnees from 2006 on a younger team that Yzerman and his crew hope is quicker and grittier, with a more mobile defence.
The 2010 team includes some unexpected names, starting with 20-year-old Drew Doughty, the gifted Los Angeles Kings defenceman who drew rave reviews at the world championships last spring, and Boston Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron, lauded for his faceoff and penalty-killing skills.
Dallas Stars winger Brendan Morrow was another who made the team, while several veterans of past Olympic teams, including Vincent Lecavalier, Shane Doan, Ryan Smyth and Martin St. Louis, were overlooked.
Niedermayer will serve as captain with Pronger and forwards Crosby and Iginla as the alternates.
“A first glance, it looks younger, but extremely talented, with guys who have had success at all different levels,” said Iginla.
The goaltenders were obvious picks – Brodeur, Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Along with Niedermayer, Pronger and Doughty, the defence includes the Blackhawks regular duo of Keith and Seabrook, as well as Shea Weber and Dan Boyle.
Boyle said it still hasn’t quite sunk in that he made the actual team this time around, especially with the tournament in Canada.
“I’m still pretty calm,” he said. “My parents and brother are a lot more excited than I was. That’s just for right now. Opening night, the first game when I put the sweater on is when it will really kick in. It’s a tremendous honour and sharing it with my buddies here makes it extra special.”
Combinations from club teams were favoured, including the dynamic top line of the San Jose Sharks – Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau – and the Anaheim Ducks duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
“It’s incredible,” said Thornton, who was also on Canada’s 2006 Olympic team. “You’re lucky enough to go to an all-star game with one other player on your team. Four guys on the same Olympic team is very special because it’s one of the toughest teams to make. It’s very exciting for all four of us to be sharing this together.”
Forwards Nash, centre Eric Staal, physical centre Mike Richards and gritty winger Brendan Morrow also made the cut.
The crowd at the WorldFest venue near the Credit Union Centre at the world junior hockey championship reserved special cheers for head coach and Saskatoon native Mike Babcock, who was heavily involved in the selection process, and Saskatchewan natives Getzlaf, Marleau and Morrow.
The midday announcement was also carried on some 13 network and cable channels across the country.
Yzerman was confident he and his team picked the best mix of talent from Canada’s very deep pool, but acknowledged that very good players had to be left off the list.
“We had a lot of debate, all afternoon (Tuesday),” Yzerman said. “We took a break, went to the (Canadian junior) game last night and talked about it some more last evening and then we’re deciding on one spot. Mike and I talked this morning and debated it again and virtually made the decision this morning at 7.”
He said the final decision was on the 13th forward, although there was also debate on the final defence positions. That likely included the decision to take Doughty and leave off Washington Capitals rearguard Mike Green, the NHL’s scoring leader among defencemen.
“Doughty was at the world championship last year and he just got better and better,” said Yzerman. “We think he’s an excellent offensive defenceman.
“He’s big, he can skate and move the puck. The seven defencemen we picked are the ones we liked. We didn’t take decisions lightly.”
Doughty was sleeping when Doug Armstrong, one of Yzerman’s assistant general managers along with Lowe and Ken Holland, called him. It was a sweet wake-up call for the young blue-liner. The players were alerted an hour before the list was made public.
“I really didn’t know want to expect,” Doughty said in Calgary before facing the Flames. “I knew I had a shot, but I knew I was young and there’a a lot of great D-men that were trying out for the team.”
Any player on the list who is injured can be replaced up to Feb. 15, the eve of the start of the Games hockey tournament. Canada faces Norway in its opening game Feb. 16.
Yzerman has a pool of more than 40 players to choose from who have taken part in the pre-Olympic anti-doping program, but he said any injury replacements would come from among the late cuts. He did not offer any names.
But Canada won’t make any arbitrary changes.
“Our position is we’re only going to replace a player if he isn’t able to play due to health reasons,” he said.
Bergeron made the squad despite not being among the 46 players invited to the summer orientation camp in Calgary. He missed most of last season with a concussion, but is fully recovered and having a strong NHL season.
Yzerman likes the 24-year-old’s versatility, pointing out that between the right-hand shooting Bergeron and left-shooting Toews he has players able to win key faceoffs from either side of the ice.
“He played very well in all parts of the game,” said Yzerman. “He does the little things very well and we place a lot of value in that.”
Canada is essentially sending an all-star team to Vancouver as the combined salaries of the 23 players is a mind-boggling US$123.57 million – more than twice the NHL’s current $56.8-million salary cap.
The Canadian team will be relatively young. Twelve of the 23 players are currently 25 or under.
“It’s a great feeling and a great honour,” said 25-year-old Staal, whose younger brother Jordan was considered, but finally left off the team. “That being said, it’s going to be in Canada with that added bonus and it’s going to be a lot of pressure but a lot of fun. It’s going to be a blast.”
Whoever was chosen will go the Vancouver under heavy pressure to win nothing but gold.
“We were aware of the expectations when we were asked to be part of this,” said Yzerman, whose group has been at work scouting and examining players since October 2008. “There was no hesitation.
“That’s our goal. We have a tremendous team. We’re very confident about the team we’ve put together, but by no means is this going to be easy. There’s going to be some very exiting moments. Hopefully luck will be on our side and we’ll get the gold we want, but by no means do we take this for granted.”
-With files from The Associated Press.