Wayne Gretzky knows a thing or two about playing in a big game.
He realizes that for many of the players on Team Canada’s roster, the World Cup final against Finland on Tuesday night as big as it comes.
And Gretzky has some suggestions about how the Canadians should approach the winner-take-all game.
“All they need to do is look at this as one of the greatest nights of their lives,” he said on the eve of the final. “It is not pressure and that’s a fact. You just go out there and really enjoy it. This is something you dream about as a kid, playing for your country and playing for a championship and I think their attitude is they’re really focused and they are really enjoying it.”
Only 10 of the 23 players that mined Olympic gold at the 2002 Winter Games are on Canada’s World Cup team. Overall, it’s young roster, with 19 players under the age of 30. But a vast majority of the players can draw from their experiences of either going deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs or having been part of winning gold at the last two world championships.
These players know what it takes to win.
“I think the young guys that we have had a lot of experience the last couple of years," says Mario Lemieux. "You look at (Vince) Lecavalier and (Brad) Richards and (Marty) St. Louis, they won the Cup this year. So they're experienced in big games, they know how to prepare themselves.”
Head coach Pat Quinn is confident his players know how to deal with the importance of the situation.
“You’d like to have that peace and calm and have it work in a good way for you and not the tightening up and tense blinders on sort of feeling you get when the pressure is there. And good athletes find a way to do that.”
Gretzky feels the Canadians will deliver what it takes to beat the Finns. He says the players left their egos at the door when they arrived at training camp and they’re all on the same page as to what it takes to win the World Cup of Hockey.
“Each guy has taken on their responsibility for this team, and taken it on with a lot of passion," Gretzky said. “Consequently, we're in the championship game.”
The championship game has the makings of a keeper. Both teams are undefeated and both have few, if any, weaknesses.
The Canadians will have to find a way to beat goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who after Martin Brodeur has been the best goalie in the tournament. People will remember how Kiprusoff had a career-season in 2003-04, leading the Calgary Flames into the Stanley Cup Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa Bay won the series in seven games and Kiprusoff established himself as one of the top goalies in the NHL.
If there is anyone on Canada’s roster who might have the book on the Finnish goalie, it’s Jarome Iginla. He’s Kiprusoff’s teammate in Calgary and he says there are few holes in his game.
“All the top goalies in the league, their spots are a just a little bit smaller,” says Iginla. “You go to pretty much the same spot for all of them but some just have bigger ones than others.
“There are no glaring weaknesses. There are just smaller holes. He is a butterfly goalie but a bit more dynamic butterfly. But you just have to pick better spots.”
But truth be known, there’s much more to the Finns than their goalie, although he’s the most important part.
The Finns work as hard with or without the puck as anyone in the tournament. They have speed, they like to hit and they never quit. Goaltending can give a team the edge but the World Cup final will be a battle of not only goalies but a battle of will to win. The Canadian forwards will have to fight for every inch of space and then some.
“Their emotional level right now and their adrenalin right now, we always talk about Canada’s pride and heart and how far that takes you . . . these guys are just as much right now and you can throw that out the window,” says Richards. “Their aggressiveness and the way they battle will have to be matched.”
Fans of Team Canada remember that Finland gave Canada all it could handle at the 2002 Winter Olympics. Canada won the quarter-final match 2-1 in a tight-checking game.
And they should expect the same Tuesday night.
Finally, much has been written about the 2004 World Cup being a changing of the guard. Chris Chelios of the United States has announced his retirement from international hockey as has Jaromir Jagr of the Czech Republic.
On that subject, Tuesday’s final may mark the end of Gretzky's reign as Team Canada boss
``We have so many qualified people that can take over, people like Kevin (Lowe) and Steve (Tambellini), Darryl Sutter, Bob Gainey, Kenny Holland,' said Gretzky. ``Sooner or later, it is going to be the right thing for me to step aside and let somebody else take it on.
``But right now, I love it, I love being part of it, I love the pressure of it, I love the excitement of it. I really, truly enjoy being around these players. They're really wonderful guys. It's been a great experience for me.'
And Gretzky wants his players to have the experience of a lifetime in the World Cup final