Marc Habscheid, the head coach of Canada’s team at the 2004 Spengler Cup, had a big decision to make as he was putting his team together. Would he dip into a very tempting pool of out of work National Hockey League players and put together a Spengler “superstar” team. Or, would he go back to the well that has quenched a championship thirst effectively over the last few years? Do you go with the big names, or do you go with a cast of Canadian-born guys toiling for teams in Europe who many people have never heard of? It was a simple decision when it came right down to it.
“We made a commitment to the guys who have made a commitment to us in the past. That was the decision,” says Habscheid. “A lot of these guys have answered the call and done great things for Hockey Canada in tournaments over in Europe that you don’t hear a lot about back in Canada. With the Spengler, a tournament that people can watch back home and has a lot of prestige, we just didn’t want to turn our backs on the players who’ve answered the call for other tournaments. This is a big deal to them and to us.”
Canada has won the Spengler Cup 10 times, including the last two years. The five team invitational tournament features a Canadian all star team made up of former NHL players, American Hockey League players and former junior hockey stars. The other teams this year are Davos (the Swiss host club), Metallurg Magnitogorsk (Russia), IFK Helsinki (Finland) and Sparta Prague (Czech Republic). All of those teams will feature NHL players who has escaped the labour chaos and bolted to play in Europe this year. Joe Thornton, Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis play for Davos. The Czech team features Petr Nedved and Karl Pilar. The Russians have loaded up with Sergei Gonchar and Petr Sykora. While the Finns have NHLers Marek Zidlicky and Jarkko Ruutu.
Had Hockey Canada decided to, it could have sent a spectacular team. Think about it. All of those out of work NHL players, not to mention the guys playing over in Europe.
“There are 22 guys on this team who appreciate the loyalty Hockey Canada is showing us here”, says defenceman Jamie Heward, a part of the last two Canadian championships at the Spengler Cup. “For a lot of the guys that play over here, this is a career highlight. Guys who have been here in the past take a lot of pride in putting that jersey on and being able to play for their country. If you’re a Canadian and you play in Europe, you talk about this thing and long to play in it.”
As much as loyalty is a big reason Hockey Canada officials decided to stick with non-NHLers for this tournament, there is another reason. There is an excellent chance that the NHL will take a pass on participation in the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. If that’s the case, we will likely see the re-birth of a National Team made up from, you guessed it, Canadians NOT playing in the NHL. And who might the coach of that team be? You might want to place a rather large bet on the man who will be behind the bench for Canada at this year’s Spengler Cup. So watch closely. You may be seeing a lot more of some of the key pieces of this team down the road.