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THE DIFFERENCE MAKER Add to ...

eduhatschek@globeandmail.com

It can be argued, as Anaheim Ducks forward Teemu Selanne did last week, that teammate Scott Niedermayer's absence from Team Canada at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Tuirn was a major contributing factor to the country's dismal performance.

The Ducks defenceman bowed out of the Olympic tournament after some serious soul-searching, deciding at the 11th hour to recuperate an ailing knee. That's how he came to watch from afar as a punchless Canada failed to defend the gold medal from Salt Lake City in 2002, losing to Switzerland in a preliminary round game and getting eliminated from medal contention by Russia in the quarter-final.

"You're supporting them because it's your country and in a way, your teammates," Niedermayer recalled the other day during an interview in Anaheim.

"When you see them go out there, you know they want to do well but things aren't going their way - that's hard to play, and that's hard to watch."

Would the slick puck-moving defenceman have made a difference? Canada's theoretically high-octane scoring attack was shut out in three of the final four games, including a defeat at the hands of the Finns, the eventual silver medalists.

In Vancouver, not only does Niedermayer intend to return to Olympic hockey, chances are he will serve as Canada's captain when the tournament is played in his home province.

"It's pretty unique to have it in your backyard," said Niedermayer, who grew up in Cranbrook, in southeastern British Columbia. "Maybe that's not totally accurate to say hometown but the Olympics aren't going to Cranbrook any time soon, so yes, it's special to have it in your country and so close to home, a place you're familiar with. I think it'll be special for all the guys."

Niedermayer's game is perfectly suited to international hockey. Appearing to glide over the ice with an effortless stride, Niedermayer possesses an uncanny ability to jump into the play at just the right time. That difficult-to-quantify attribute known as hockey sense can help a team create offence from the back end.

In the last Olympics, Canada needed a key goal many times when the tournament was reaching its critical stage. Had Niedermayer been in Turin, would things have turned out differently for Canada?

"I think they missed him a lot, especially in a big [European]rink like that," Selanne said.

"He doesn't have to stop once, just gliding everywhere. When he starts gliding, nobody can beat him. Obviously, every country would miss a player like him. ..."

"But," paused Selanne, who played for the silver-medal winning Finns, "it was good for us."

Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, mindful of Niedermayer's importance to the Ducks in their 2007 run to the Stanley Cup, agrees one player can make a difference even in a team game. "Scotty brings a special element to any team he plays on," Carlyle said. "He has a calming effect and a high skill set and his inner competitiveness is always on display. When he puts his mind to it, he's going to go out and try to make a difference ... and that's a special player.

"Not everybody can do that, but Scott Niedermayer can - and he's done it for years. So having coached him, it would never surprise me to see what he would try to do. He tries, in [critical]situations, to make a difference. He takes on that responsibility and he just goes out and does it."

Niedermayer is one of the most decorated Canadian players of all time, having won championships at every level: Stanley Cup, Olympic gold, world championships, world junior, major junior.

Drafted third overall in 1991 by the New Jersey Devils, Niedermayer has played constantly in the NHL since the 1992-93 season. He moved to the Ducks in 2005. Now 36, Niedermayer grew up dreaming about playing in the NHL, as the Olympics were then restricted to amateur players.

"It's changed a lot in the last 12 years," Niedermayer said. "These guys who are 20 years old, that's what they're used to watching growing up. I like the idea of having a big international event that does get everybody excited. The different events that are ongoing [such as world championships] it's not always the best of the best.

"In the Olympics, it is. It's not an ideal thing - where you have to jump right into it, because there's no real preparation. But for lack of something better right now, this is it - and it gets all the players' attention. The players, from every country, want to do well in it. It is important to us."

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Flashback: 1920 Games

The Winnipeg Falcons hold the distinction of winning the first Olympic gold medal in hockey. But earning the right to be Canada's Olympic representative in Antwerp, Belgium, was perhaps the team's mightiest accomplishment.

Predominantly comprised of players of Icelandic heritage, the Falcons faced widespread discrimination. The team's repeated attempts to join the Winnipeg Hockey League (WHL) were met with resistance, so they established their own league, the Manitoba Hockey League (MHL).

Its players even kept the team intact while serving overseas during the First World War. The Falcons won the MHL, then exacted revenge on the WHL by beating its champion and becoming Manitoba's representative in the Allan Cup championship.

In the Allan Cup, a competition for senior amateur teams, the Falcons easily downed the favoured University of Toronto in a two-game, total-goal series to become Canada's first Olympic hockey representative.

At the Olympics, the Falcons defeated Czechoslovakia 15-0, the United States 2-0 and Sweden 12-1 en route to victory. They went from a team no one respected to one decorated in Olympic gold.

ctvolympics.ca

*****

Foreign Affairs: Russia

Vladislav Tretiak has been assigned the task of leading Russia to its first Olympic gold since the 1992 Games in Albertville.

Tretiak was named general manager of the men's hockey squad by the Russian Ice Hockey Federation yesterday.

A member of the Hockey Hall Of Fame, the former goaltender won three Olympic gold medals (1972, 1976, 1984) and one silver (1980) as a player. He also competed in 13 International Ice Hockey Federation world championships, winning a medal in each tournament: 10 gold, one silver and two bronze.

As a goaltending coach, he helped Russia to a bronze medal in Salt Lake City in 2002.

***

STOCK UP / DANY HEATLY

Left winger Dany Heatley of the San Jose Sharks scored three goals and an assist last Thursday as the Sharks defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team coached by Team Canada assistant Ken Hitchcock. Heatley, considered to be on the bubble for a roster spot after demanding a trade from the Ottawa Senators last summer, had eight points (five goals) in three games last week to earn NHL player-of-the-week honours. Heatley will need to keep scoring consistently to break the logjam of players with a similar skill set, and also convince management he can play a 200-foot game.

***

STOCK DOWN / MARTIN BRODEUR

New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur went 1-2 in his first three starts, with a goals-against average near 4.00. Under new coach Jacques Lemaire, who returned to guide the Devils this season, the team has yet to re-establish its defensive identity.

Eric Duhatschek

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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