It may just be the hardest tournament for a Canadian hockey team to win, and that's why the party lasted all night long in Helsinki last spring. Anson Carter's dramatic overtime goal that gave Canada a 3-2 win over Sweden in the May 11 final of the men's world hockey championship won't soon be forgotten by Canadians, either.
The men's world championship squad, led by Dany Heatley, Kris Draper, Ryan Smyth, Jay Bouwmeester and Roberto Luongo, picked up another honour Thursday when it was named Canadian team of the year by The Canadian Press.
"As we all know, there's lots of great teams in all sports in this country, and to be named team of the year is very special," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said.
"It's a tough, tough tournament for us to win and now we just have to get ready for next year and hopefully we'll be in the voting again."
The hockey team edged the women's soccer side, which reached the final four of the World Cup, by 93 points to 85 in balloting of sports editors and broadcasters across the country.
The soccer team actually had more first-place votes (18-16) but the hockey team collected more second- and third-place ballots. World champion ice dancers Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz were third with 16 first-place votes and 67 points.
In a wide-open competition, 14 teams collected first-place votes.
The men's Olympic hockey team won the award the year before.
Canada's world championship was only its third since 1977 (the year NHL players began participating) at the annual International Ice Hockey Federation tournament, an event overshadowed by the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs at home but very much the Super Bowl of hockey in Europe.
"Any time a Canadian hockey team wins a gold medal in international play they deserve major recognition," said Jamie Smalley of CFAR Radio in Flin Flon, Man.
And much of the credit goes to Canadian general manager Steve Tambellini, the Vancouver Canucks vice-president of player personnel who assembled the team that went 8-0-1 in the tournament, including a pair of wins over a Swedish club led by Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg.
"When I think of the world championship team I can't remember anything that represented a team from Canada more than what that hockey club accomplished," said Tambellini, who was also part of the management team on the Olympic champion. "It really has to have all components to win a world championship. That experience of the leadership group from players such as Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Sean Burke, Ryan Smyth and Anson Carter - they were just so instrumental in giving Canada a chance."
"And I think what people underestimate is maybe the level and depth of knowledge that a coaching staff needs and what Andy Murray brought was unmatched. He just did a wonderful job. I thought he outcoached every team that Canada played."
Murray, head coach of the Los Angeles Kings, has become synonymous with success at the world championships, having coached Canada to its previous title in 1997 as well.
The title was a long time coming for Smyth, the Edmonton Oilers star known in Europe as Captain Canada, having played in five straight world championships before finally winning it all.
Canada cruised through the 2003 tournament - a 2-2 tie with hockey minnow Denmark its only blemish - before a shock back injury to veteran netminder Sean Burke in the 8-4 semifinal win over the Czech Republic raised concern.
But while the Swedish media predicted a sure victory for their team with the loss of Burke - whose 1.28 goals-against average was tops in the tournament - Canada exuded quiet confidence in the 24-year-old Luongo.
He responded with a 37-save gem, including a pair of breakaway stops on Sundin, signalling that he will wear Canadian colours many more times.
"For Roberto to accomplish that, there were people that were doubting him, wondering how we could get through this without Sean Burke, and Roberto really had something to prove not only to himself but to the people that said he had never won before," Tambellini said. "He had lost a gold in the world junior tournament (1999)."
"And he did it. He was outstanding for us. And that was important not only for Team Canada but also for Roberto."
Canada looks to defend its title at the world championships April 24-May 9 in Prague, a tournament that will have the added spice of acting as a warm-up to the Aug. 30-Sept. 14 World Cup of Hockey.
Nicholson assures that Canada will have some continuity for both tournaments, with Wayne Gretzky resuming his Olympic role of executive director for the World Cup and assisted once again by Tambellini as director of player personnel as well as Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, Canada's assistant executive director.
Jim Nill, assistant GM of the Detroit Red Wings, will be Canada's GM for the world championships. He was the assistant GM to Tambellini last year. New York Rangers assistant GM Don Maloney will be assistant GM in Prague after being director of player personnel last year. Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald will be director of player personnel.
Nicholson deserves credit for keeping a fluid link to Canada's top men's teams.
"When I saw Steve with Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Lowe (at Salt Lake City) it was a perfect fit for him to be the general manager of the men's team last year and he did an outstanding job with Jim Nill and Don Maloney," Nicholson said. "And I think all three of those guys are going to be general managers in the National Hockey League."
The performance of certain players in Prague will influence the final roster selection for the World Cup, an event run by the NHL and NHL Players' Association.
"We'll be able to use the world championship to evaluate players that get knocked out of the playoffs as well as using the Stanley Cup playoffs," Nicholson said. "So it's going to be a great time this spring for Wayne Gretzky, Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini to evaluate talent for the World Cup."
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