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Family an important part of Team Canada at the world championship

HALIFAX - Under normal circumstances, Natalie Mayers would be at the IIHF World Hockey Championship watching her husband Jamal play for Team Canada.

Her Mother's Day would have included a brunch with all the other players' families and an afternoon tour.

Instead, she's eight months pregnant and back home in St. Louis looking after the couple's two-year-old daughter Langley. She's also on her husband's mind.

"She got flowers yesterday and I already called today," Jamal said after practice on Sunday morning. "It's another example of all the sacrifices that mom's make. Being a hockey wife isn't an easy job."

Mayers seriously considered taking a pass on the world championship with his wife due to give birth in June. He was part of the Canadian team that won gold in Russia last year and had Natalie join him in Moscow for the final few days of that event.

When he received another invitation from GM Steve Yzerman this year, the couple talked it over and decided that the opportunity was too good for him to pass up.

"I had some apprehension at first with my wife being eight months pregnant," said Mayers. "I knew she would be supportive regardless but I wanted to let her really think about it. ...

"We have a pretty good support system at home with her mom and family around so we're pretty lucky that way."

It's something all professional hockey players can relate to. Most of them owe some of their success to devoted parents who helped with their early development in the game and many continue to rely heavily on family to help keep things in order while they're away from home.

Hockey Canada understands that and runs an enviable family program during this event.

"You feel bad for the other countries because when they see what they do for us, they get jealous," said captain Shane Doan. "They talk about, 'Wow, look at what Hockey Canada does. Look at what the extent of what they go to.'

"Last night, it was as simple as making sure everyone has flowers. Making sure all the moms have flowers, all the wives have flowers. If you're here and you wanted flowers shipped back to your mom somewhere else, they'd ship them back for you."

It sounds like a small gesture but it's the kind of thing that helps the team succeed. Everything a player might need is taken care of so that he can focus on the task at hand.

The Canadian team has won all five of its games here and is entering an important stretch starting with Monday's game against Finland (TSN, 3:30 p.m. ET). The playoff round follows that.

"When you get in competitions that are this long, a lot of times the teams that win are the ones that just don't want to go home," said Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock. "They want to keep going, they want to stay together. Our team has that feel about it right now.

"They enjoy each other's company, they're having a great time together."

That's another thing the families help with.

Cam Ward brought childhood friend Steve Kelly to Moscow a year ago and has his parents and wife with him here. One of the turning points for the 2007 team was when all the guests arrived.

"It seemed like when the parents came and the family came, the team brought it to another level," said Ward.

In many ways, these trips can be a once in a lifetime experience for everyone involved.

"Going to Moscow (last year) didn't really sound like a great family trip and my kids had a blast," said Doan. "They got to go to the Kremlin, Red Square and do all that. Here we've been down to the ocean and walked at the harbourfront, Peggy's Cove.

"They're doing all these fun things."

That helps builds continuity in the program.

It was less than 10 years ago that Hockey Canada practically had to beg players to come to the world championship. Now it's finding that players are being urged to come by family members who want to join them at the tournament.

"I think if it was just work and if it was just a job and just business, I don't think you'd get the players coming back," said Hitchcock. "I think if you don't include the families you (won't) have any hope of bringing the players back again."

Rick Nash's grandpa has become a mainstay at international tournaments. The 23-year-old forward is playing in his third world championship and was also a member of the 2006 Olympic team and the 2002 world junior squad. He always brings his grandpa along for the ride.

His mother Liz was also in Moscow a year ago but couldn't make it this spring. She celebrated a birthday on Saturday and Mother's Day on Sunday and will excuse her son for his absence from those events if he can bring home another gold medal.

"That would be more than enough for sure," said Nash.

Mayers can relate.

The best part about winning gold in Russia wasn't hearing the national anthem after the game or spraying his teammates with champagne in the dressing room - it was having his wife Natalie there to witness it.

"It only means something when you have someone to share it with," said Mayers. "Family's the most important thing."

In Sunday's on-ice action, Switzerland routed Denmark 7-2, Latvia beat Norway 4-1, Finland beat the United States 3-2 and Sweden defeated the Czech Republic 5-3.


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