Volume 91, Issue 52

Friday, November 28, 1997

location, location



Nagano nit-picking

When the official Team Canada Olympic hockey roster is released tomorrow, one household name won't be on the short list.

Choosing 13 forwards, seven defencemen and three goaltenders from the abundance of NHL talent which this country has to offer is no easy task, especially at centre where in recent weeks the hockey chit-chat has been whether Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier will be included on the final list of names.

The likely scenario is one of the two future Hall of Famers will have to sacrifice his spot on the team. At first glance, this may come as a surprise, but in light of Canada's stunning World Cup loss to the U.S. last year, a stern lesson must be taken to heart. If Bob Clarke, Pierre Gauthier and Bob Gainey, who are among those to decide on the composition of the Olympic roster, award spots based on patronage and not on worth, Canada is destined to lose in Nagano.

Hockey is one, if not the last, bastion of national pride Canadians have and losing to the U.S. in the World Cup provided a rude wake-up call for anyone naive enough to believe Canada is the best hockey country in the world.

When the concept of allowing professional hockey players to compete in the Olympics was first announced, the initial thought was that the opportunity to play in the apex of all sporting events would pay homage to living legends like Gretzky and Messier.

Recently, however, Messier and his Vancouver Canucks have been dismal and the Moose has done nothing to dismiss the notion that his best days are behind him.

With Paul Kariya, Eric Lindros and Joe Sakic, three of the most prolific scorers over the past two seasons, being shoe-ins to make the team, another spot should be reserved for a defensive-minded third-line centre like Mike Peca which leaves no space for either Gretzky or Messier.

"He has great speed, great savvy, great experience," Mike Keenan said of Messier. But at 36, Messier is certainly a step behind the premier centres around the NHL. As for experience, the World Cup defeat demonstrated a lack of defensive prowess and aggressive forechecking, two areas where Messier can not contribute.

It's a moot point that Messier is a tremendous leader, but leadership is another area which Canada has no shortage with Lindros, Kariya, Sakic, Ray Bourque and possibly Steve Yzerman, who are all captains on their respective teams and are likely to make the roster.

Canada's key to reversing the World Cup misfortune depends on the grittiness of the third line. Looking at the teams which have had playoff success in the past, those with determined third lines spark the best performance. A third line centred by Pecca, last year's Selke Trophy winner (best defensive forward), along with Yzerman and Claude Lemieux would provide a strong defensive line. So what the team needs is a quality centre who is willing to be a role player – something Messier, who has almost always been a front-line centre, has never been called to do his entire career.

Of the two future Hall of Famers, Gretzky should get the nod because he has performed much better than Messier this season, with 25 points in 25 games compared to Messier who has only 18 points in 24 games.

Granted, the Moose is still a good player and the Canucks certainly believe him to be a valuable asset in light of the multi-million-dollar deal they offered to bring him to Vancouver, but his exclusion is predictable considering what he brings to the Olympic table isn't what Team Canada needs.

To Contact The Sports Department: gazsport@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997