Region could take credit for Olympic gold

If the Steve Yzerman “Dream Team” is able to lock up a gold medal at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver next month, Northwestern Ontario can take credit for a good portion of it.
Four of the 23 Olympians (17 percent) selected by the Detroit Red Wings’ legend hail from this region. And that’s nothing to shake a composite stick at considering Northwestern Ontario has about 235,000 residents, or, in other words, far less than 17 percent of the country.
Chicago Blackhawks’ defenceman Duncan Keith, who got his start playing minor hockey here in Fort Frances, headlines the list.
Philadelphia Flyer teammates Mike Richards (Kenora) and Chris Pronger (Dryden) made it, and Carolina’s Eric Staal (Thunder Bay) also will don the Maple Leaf when Canada opens play against Norway on Feb. 16.
Keith and Richards are first-time Olympians while Pronger will suit up for his fourth. Staal, meanwhile, was an alternate for the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.
Team Canada boasts a combined 14 Stanley Cups (half of which were won by captain Scott Neidermayer and Martin Brodeur), but Staal and Pronger represent two of those.
There’s a winner’s pedigree in the Northwestern Ontario bunch as all four have made it to the conference finals at least once since the lockout—each playing a major role in those appearances.
And it’s no surprise that this region’s contingent ranks up with the country’s elite. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve been impressed with the quality of play on display at the Memorial Sports Centre—from the boys and girls playing minor hockey right up to the Muskies and Thunderhawks.
The thing is, most of the really impressive games don’t seem to be played here. Rather, those matches are happening in Winnipeg, or in Fargo or Duluth.
Our skaters are sticking it to the big-city kids and paving their way to be solid players with great fundamentals along the way.
Regardless of whether the NHL participates in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in 2014, at this point I can see no reason why a similar proportion of representatives wouldn’t call Northwestern Ontario home.
But, back to the 2010 roster, which included a couple of controversial selections.
There was talk in 2006 about selecting a well-rounded team that included off-the-board selections like Red Wings’ grinder Kris Draper and arguably Phoenix’s Shane Doan and then-Maple Leaf Bryan McCabe.
The result was a disappointing seventh-place finish.
Players from 16 different NHL teams represented Canada in Turin, and the mish-mash of superstars just never quite jelled.
This time around, 14 teams are represented. The Blackhawks’ defence pairing of Keith and Brent Seabrook was selected, and San Jose’s top line of Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Marleau seems likely to appear as-is.
When you throw in the chemistry that Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron showed at the 2005 world juniors, Pronger and Neidermayer from their Anaheim Duck days, and reunite Anaheim linemates Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry with 2005 world junior captain Richards, the test tube already should be foaming.
And then there’s L.A. Kings’ defenceman Drew Doughty, who made the roster as Canada’s final defender over a member of the Calgary trio of Dion Phaneuf, Robyn Regehr, and Jay Bouwmeester. The 20-year-old showed he was ready for prime time in a big way Monday night, when he picked up four assists in a 6-2 thumping of the San Jose Sharks, including a sharp pass that gave Anze Kopitar an easy goal.
Even though Doughty may not see many pressure situations in Vancouver, being the catalyst to knocking off a strong Sharks’ team on an eight-game winning streak isn’t exactly a stroll through a Napa Valley vineyard.
Lastly, there were mixed reviews about the selection of Dallas Stars’ captain Brenden Morrow, but it’s a pick I like. Morrow was a major part of the Stars upending the Sharks in the 2008 playoffs on their way to an appearance in the Western Conference finals.
At this point, it looks like Canada should have the best depth in the Olympic tournament, although the Russians might not be far behind. They sport three of the top forwards in the game in Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk.
If they are placed together and click, that’s a scary line.
How Russia’s KHL talent will match up is the most intriguing part of the roster as former Nashville Predator Alexander Radulov showed flashes of brilliance in the NHL. And while former Penguin Aleksey Morozov flamed out in North America, he’s been dominating European leagues for years, while Sergei Vinoviev also is among the KHL’s scoring leaders.
The defence, led by Sergei Gonchar, is a bit of a question mark, but should hold up just well enough if the Russians end up in a barnburner.
Counting out defending champions Sweden would be unwise, although age may be catching up with many of the superstars, including perennial Norris Trophy candidate Nicklas Lidstrom.
But if the new generation, such as Dallas’ Loui Eriksson, Nashville’s Patrick Hornqvist, and Atlanta’s Tobias Enstrom, steps up, the Swedes still could pose a dark-horse threat.
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t enjoyed the best season in the NHL, but is nearly unbeatable when on his game.
The Finns, runners-up in 2006, look to be fairly strong, especially in net with Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff and Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom. Antreo Niittymaki also returns in goal after being named the top netminder in the 2006 Games.
Aging vets Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu will look to Minnesota’s Mikko Koivu, Toronto’s Niklas Hagman, and Detroit’s Valtteri Filppula to help with the heavy lifting.
As for the Americans, any team with Ryan Miller between the pipes has a legitimate shot but its blueline corps, headlined by Detroit’s Brian Rafalski, comes off as a little bit patchwork this time around.
Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik are work-a-day, blue-collar defenders—and could do some damage up against some top scorers.
The forward unit, meanwhile, leaves no doubt that this is Brian Burke’s team, and should have more than their share of Burke’s patented “truculence.”
They should do plenty to wear down other teams, but whether that sandpaper is a fine enough grade against the world’s top players will be the USA’s biggest riddle heading into Vancouver.
On paper, both the Canadians and Russians should be good enough to punch their tickets to the final. Whether the hometown boys will be able to handle Malkin, Ovechkin, and Kovalchuk in a one-game, winner-take-all is the $64-million question.
At the very least, each contending team brings something a little bit different to the table, and the road to the final for any squad should be as winding and entertaining as B.C. famed Sea-to-Sky Highway.

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