2003 WJC Preview: Team Canada

By Laurence Heinen

In 1982, Marc Habscheid helped Team Canada win gold at the World Junior Hockey Championships for the first time. Playing alongside the likes of Gord Kluzak, Scott Arniel and Troy Murray to name a few, Habscheid was a key factor in Canada’s championship performance.

More than 20 years later, he’s now being called upon to coach Canada’s entry into the 2003 version of the annual Under-20 tournament in Halifax, which gets underway on Boxing Day.

“It’s an extremely big honor, but it’s not about me,” Habscheid said. “It’s about these 22 players that are going to represent their country. I was fortunate enough to play and I know with the players, these guys are all excited. It’s about them. They’re full of excitement and expectations and it’s up to the coaching staff to get a cohesive unit and get them pointed in the right direction.”

Playing in Halifax in front of sold out crowds at the Metro Centre, the Canadian squad will definitely have a lot of support from some of the most die-hard fans in the world.
“The expectations are going to be higher,” Habscheid said about having his squad perform in front of thousands of rambunctious fans and a television audience of millions. “We have the support of the crowd. I guess there’s a little added pressure playing at home, but if we had our druthers we’d rather play at home than overseas. We feel fortunate that we’re going to have a sold out building and all the support of the city and the country behind us. So we look at it as an advantage.”

As always, the Canadian Hockey Association was under the microscope when it came to choosing this year’s version of the National Junior Team. With so many talented players scattered across the second largest country (in area) in the world, there were obviously some tough decisions to make, such as cutting Corey Locke, the leading scorer in the entire Canadian Hockey League.

“Going into the job, you know that you’re going to be under that kind of scrutiny, so that comes with the territory,” Habscheid said of the yearly right of second guessing by fans and the media when it comes to cuts and coaching decisions. “So if you don’t expect that, I guess I shouldn’t have applied for the job.”

Habscheid had some encouraging words directed towards players like Locke, goalie Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, defenceman Doug Lynch as well as highly touted young prospects Braydon Coburn, Nathan Horton and Eric Staal and the other players who were cut from the squad (not to mention the countless talented players who weren’t even invited to the pre-tournament selection camp in Halifax).

“Back in ’82 we went on to cut a guy named Al MacInnis and he went on to have a pretty good career, so I think a lot of guys will take some heart in that,” said the bench boss of the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets. “That’s the depth of hockey in Canada. We’ve got a large talent pool and the CHA does a good job of developing talent.”

Leading the Canadian charge will be four returning players from last year’s silver medal winning squad in forward and captain Scottie Upshall of the Kamloops Blazers, forward Jay McClement of the Brampton Battalion and defencemen Carlo Colaiacovo of the Erie Otters and Nathan Paetsch of the Moose Jaw Warriors.Rounding out the defense corps for Canada are Jeff Woywitka, Brendan Bell, Ian White and Alexandre Rouleau who will play in front of netminders Marc-Andre Fleury and David LeNeveau. Habscheid said the coaching staff likes the mixture of size and skill on the blueline and that he’ll be confident with either goaltender between the pipes for Canada.

Although Canada can only boast two returning forwards, Habscheid is excited about the mix of scoring potential, two-way players and role players who exude grit and character. Both Upshall and McClement, who both exude grit, character and confidence, will be counted upon to lead the likes of Bouchard, Boyd Gordon, Joffrey Lupul, Pierre Parenteau, Matthew Stajan, Jordin Tootoo, Kyle Wellwood, Gregory Campbell, Brooks Laich, Daniel Paille and Derek Roy into battle in Pool B, which also consists of Sweden, Finland, Germany and the Czech Republic.

Whether this year’s version of Team Canada has the necessary ingredients to win gold for the first time since 1997 remains to be seen. One thing is for sure though and that’s the passion and love that all 22 Canadian players have for the game. Combine that with their immense talent level and the electric atmosphere in Halifax and Canada has to be considered as (tongue in cheek) one of the top 10 teams in the tournament.

Ah heck, I’ll say it – – in my mind, Canada’s the odds-on favorite to win the event, partly due to the fact that the players will enjoy something that none of the other nine teams can boast – an immense home-ice advantage in Halifax.

“It is just going to be an unbelievable event,” said CHA president Bob Nicholson. “All the games are sold out in Halifax. There’s no question that when you look at it, it will be the No. 1 hockey event that has ever been held in North America when you look at the attendance numbers.”

One of the most positive factors for the Canadian squad is that they are being led into battle by Habscheid, who’s been there before and who knows what it takes to win.
Let the games begin.