THE CANADIAN PRESS
QUEBEC — Ken Hitchcock doesn’t have to think back very far to remember a time when things weren’t this good.
He was an assistant coach on the Canadian team at the 2002 IIHF World Hockey Championship when more than 60 players declined an invitation to represent their country. GM Lanny McDonald ended up having to turn to European-based players just to field a team at the event in Sweden.
"I wouldn’t say it was embarrassing but it was a tough pill to swallow when you know that you’re so desperate that you’re begging players that aren’t even in the National Hockey League to play for you," Hitchcock recalled Thursday. "And I know Lanny was just devastated."
Times have certainly changed.
Hitchcock is now the head coach of a Canadian team that has a chance to win its fourth gold medal in six years and has a pretty long list of players that were disappointed not to be selected to participate.
The Canadian team opened training camp with a bang on Thursday, officially adding Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Ryan Getzlaf to the lineup before practising on the Colisee Pepsi ice for the first time.
They joined a group that already included Rick Nash, Eric Staal, Shane Doan and Martin St. Louis, among others.
Hitchcock credits some of the veteran players for helping put the world championship back on the radar for Canadian players.
"I think there’s a sense of obligation from some of the younger guys when they see guys like (Steve) Staios and (Shane) Doan and Marty St. Louis come back into it," he said. "And I think the word is out now.
"The word is out that it’s a great competition, it’s a great experience and it’s a great feeling for everybody. It’s a prime time event."
The coach will have no shortage of options when Canada attempts to defend its gold medal starting May 2 in Halifax. He’ll be able to look down his bench and call on Stanley Cup winners, former Olympians, established stars and promising youngsters.
The last time Canada had a team this high on name value was in 2005, when the entire NHL season was wiped out by the lockout. That Canadian squad included the likes of Martin Brodeur, Nash, Joe Thornton and Simon Gagne but had to settle for silver after losing to the Czech Republic in the final.
Many of the top Canadian players have stayed away from the world championship other years because of injuries, uncertain contract status or simply not wanting to spend almost a month in Europe after a long NHL season.
This year’s event is being staged in Canada for the first time ever and that appears to have been a significant carrot for GM Steve Yzerman to dangle in front of invitees.
"I think it’s a special tournament to be a part of," said veteran defenceman Ed Jovanovski. "The thought of a sold-out building (was exciting) and Quebec City and Halifax are pretty good hockey markets.
"It’s a fun event."
Jovanovski was another of Yzerman’s latest additions along with forward Chris Kunitz, defencemen Brent Burns and goaltender Mathieu Garon. Forward Sam Gagner and defenceman Mark Giordano were named as alternates.
Yzerman is expected to name two more blue-liners in the coming days as the team awaits word out of Calgary on the status of Dion Phaneuf.
One certain thing is that Hitchcock will have his group set by the time training camp finishes up on April 29. The team plays exhibition games against Finland and Russia in Quebec City before travelling on to Halifax to open the tournament.
The coach arrived in Quebec on Wednesday and met with his assistants for six hours. He’s already a bit overwhelmed.
"We’re going to cram one month into one week," said Hitchcock. "I think it’s really daunting for us to pull this thing together quickly."
The team’s impressive roster will undoubtedly have many picking it as a favourite to repeat as champions.
A big obstacle will be overcoming the pressure and expectations that come with playing on home soil. The last host country to win the world championship was the Soviet Union in 1986.
Last year’s Russian team provides a cautionary tale of what can go wrong. A star-studded squad led by Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin cruised through the tournament in Moscow before getting upset in the semifinal by the stingy Finns.
Canada then beat Finland to win gold — an experience Hitchcock can have some of his players share with their teammates.
Doan was the captain of that team, Nash was the star and tournament MVP and Cam Ward won all five games he started in goal. Staal, Jonathan Toews, Jason Chimera and Jamal Mayers also wore the Maple Leaf in Moscow and will play again this spring.
"We had a riot," said Doan. "We had a great time but when you win that tends to help, too."
On paper, this year’s Canadian team boasts the skill, experience and depth needed to win again.
It’s now up to Hitchcock and his coaching staff to fit the pieces together and make it happen.