QUEBEC – Jason Spezza and Eric Staal don’t want to be sitting in the stands the next time a Canadian hockey team competes at the Olympics.
They were members of the taxi squad in 2006 and could only watch as Canada was beaten by Russia in the quarter-finals. Both players are looking for a much bigger role at the 2010 Games in Vancouver and know that they can do themselves a huge favour by standing out at the upcoming IIHF World Hockey Championship.
“You never hurt yourself by playing well anywhere,” Spezza said after practice on Friday. “I think if you can play well at this thing it will help out a lot towards 2010, which is the goal for a lot of guys.”
By no means are they the only players who will be auditioning during the world championship but they are probably the most interesting.
For one, they experienced the disappointment in Turin but had no hand in it. Spezza, Staal, defenceman Dan Boyle and goalie Marty Turco took part in practices and team meetings but avoided the dressing room on game day.
“We sat in the stands and watched and learned from it,” said Spezza.
There was a lot to take in.
Nobody expected the team to lose to Switzerland during the qualifying round or to have so much trouble scoring goals on the way to a seventh-place finish. The Olympic squad was also defending the gold medal Canada won at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
“There’s so much pressure on Canadian hockey players to do well,” said Staal. “You expect a medal and you expect a gold medal. The way we finished was tough.
“You feel for the guys that are in there because they were working hard.”
The upcoming world championship will be a good dry run for the 2010 Olympics because of the similar circumstances surrounding the event – albeit on a smaller scale. Both teams will be playing to high expectations on home ice.
The Canadian squad will get its first taste of that Saturday night when it faces Finland at Le Colisee Pepsi in an exhibition game. Defenceman Mike Green was added to the roster Friday so the team that will open the tournament in Halifax on May 2 is now set.
Coach Ken Hitchcock feels optimistic about his group and knows that many of his players will be looking to make an impression during the tournament.
“I think the players know that putting on a good show here helps them in other competitions,” he said. “They’re smart and I think that they’ve seen the correlation between contributing here, being successful, and then having the same opportunity at the Olympics.”
Interestingly, he doesn’t believe the same philosophy applies to him.
Many observers believe that Hitchcock would be a good fit as the head coach of the 2010 Olympic team but it’s not a job he covets. After serving as an assistant during the last two Winter Games, he wants to see other coaches get the opportunity.
“I just think it’s somebody else’s turn,” said Hitchcock. “I’ve had my kick. I’ve been lucky – I’ve had two Olympics and a World Cup. Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do. But I just feel strongly that more coaches should experience it – not just the same four or five guys.
“If they want me there, great, I’ll do whatever I can. But I think more guys should get the chance.”
Another interesting tie between the 2010 Olympics and this tournament is that the final seedings will be set when the world championship ends next month. Canada enters as the third-ranked hockey nation in the world – due in part to the poor showing in Turin – and can make its next Olympic foray easier by playing well here and improving that placing.
In many ways, the road to Vancouver starts now.
“I want to be a part of that team and hopefully a big part,” said Staal. “It’s a few years away but this is another stepping stone to hopefully establish myself in these types of tournaments.”
Canada’s world championship roster features several young players that will likely be part of the debate when Hockey Canada management selects the Olympic squad. Everyone from Green to Duncan Keith to Jonathan Toews can get themselves on the radar in the coming weeks.
They realize it, too.
“You look at a lot of the players here and it’s hard to imagine a lot of these guys won’t be on that team,” said Toews.
The 19-year-old is a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year and is competing at his second straight world championship.
He was impressive in Moscow and hopes to be even better in Halifax and Quebec.
“Hopefully this year I do better at this tournament than I did last year and keep taking steps towards maybe giving myself a chance (for the Olympics),” said Toews. “It’s a dream of mine.”