CALGARY - There was a definite feeling that much was accomplished when the players and staff on Canada's Olympic team went their separate ways after a four-day mini-camp at Father David Bauer Arena.
The camp provided the only opportunity for Wayne Gretzky, Team Canada's executive director, and his staff to assemble the players as a group before the 2002 Winter Games open in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The NHL schedule winds down on Feb. 13 and the Olympic competition starts two days later, which leaves the 23 players who will wear Canada's colors little practice time. In fact, there's every chance that a couple of players may not arrive in Salt Lake in time for Canada's one practice session. That being the case, little wonder then that Gretzky lobbied hard to amend the Olympic agreement to allow for the four-day mini-camp the first week of September.
Although the camp was billed as an informal gathering for the 36 NHLers in the Olympic mix, there was little doubt the players understood they were being evaluated, which goes a ways in explaining the pace of the breathtaking, lung-emptying practices and scrimmages.
The consensus was that expanding the scope of the four-day session was a positive move.
"The players were the guys who stepped forward and said, 'We want to skate.' The bottom line is they love playing hockey," said Gretzky. "It's our game and we're proud of it. Everyone now realized what we're shooting for here . . . how great an honour and thrill it is not just to play for Canada, but play in the Olympics.
"Our guys handle themselves with a great deal of dignity and class all the time. They came here and they did a great thing for Canadian Hockey, they did a great thing for their country and, more important, they helped raise the excitement level for kids in this country about how great it could be to one day play on a Canadian Olympic team. From that point of view, we're extremely proud of them. A get-together like this does nothing but great things for team continuity." As the players headed out for their respective NHL training camps, they didn't feel they wasted a minute of their time.
"Looking at Salt Lake, I believe it will give us a bit of a jump,' said Eric Lindros of the New York Rangers. "Although it was only four days, I think we got the most out of it. Everybody can take something and come February, we can think back (at the camp) and feel comfortable and really prepared."
"I think it's accurate to say nobody made or didn't make the team off what we saw this week,' said Kevin Lowe, Team Canada's assistant executive director. "But some guys opened eyes. "If we'd had a week or 10 days, we could have accomplished more but this was still great from a chemistry standpoint.
"Take a kid like (Colorado's Alex) Tanguay or (Edmonton's Eric) Brewer, who maybe makes the team. If we hadn't had this camp, they'd show up in Salt Lake and maybe be walking around in awe because he's around Mario (Lemieux). Likewise, he's familiar with Pat Quinn and what he's trying to accomplish.'
The 2002 Winter Games will be Gretzky's second Olympics, but first and perhaps his only as a manager. He was a key player on Canada's roster in 1998 which finished fourth after being eliminated from the chance of going for gold when they lost to the Czech Republic in a quarter-final shootout.
Team Canada's movers and shakers in now face the task of selecting the final 23-man roster. Gretzky will scout NHL games in the next three months along Low, director of player personnel Steve Tambellini, and Wayne Fleming of the Canadian Hockey Association. They will be in constant touch with head coach Pat Quinn and associate coaches Ken Hitchcock and Jacques Martin.
"The four of us will really be watching each and every guy that was here and some other guys that weren't here." Gretzky said. "As time goes on we'll gradually get a list that gets down close to 23 until we actually get down to 23. The hardest thing about Team Canada is always getting down to the very end, who fits in right and which guys fit in and as part of the direction we're headed.".
"The future is now," continued Gretzky. "We're here to win the gold medal in 2002. We can't be overly concerned about who can play in the next Olympics or in 2010. We're going to put the best players on the ice to win the gold medal."