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Team Canada general manager Mark Messier watches the team practice Sunday May 9, 2010 at the IIHF world hockey championship in Mannheim, Germany. Head coach Mark Messier hopes to improve on the fourth-place finish posted by the Canadians last year at the Spengler Cup. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

Jacques Boissinot

Mark Messier earned his pilot's licence last year and as he prepares to lead Canada into the Spengler Cup, he's finding many similarities between flying a plane and coaching a hockey team.

The Hall of Famer will be drawing on some of his cockpit skills to help his game management behind the bench when the annual international tournament opens Sunday in Davos, Switzerland.

With just four games of elite-level coaching under his belt - all accumulated with Canadian teams that went a combined 2-2 at the Swiss Challenge and Deutschland Cup last month - Messier is still very much learning the craft.

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The challenge of improving on last year's fourth-place finish at the Spengler Cup begins Monday, when Canada plays its opener against the loser of Sunday's contest between host team HC Davos and Russian club Spartak Moscow. The Canadians play the winner of that match Tuesday ahead of the quarter-finals Wednesday.

"I always had a lot of respect for the coaches who do it well and I have a better appreciation now," Messier said Saturday, after the Canadians gathered for a practice and a Christmas dinner. "It's exciting coaching, there's a lot going on, there are decisions that have to be made and monitored continuously.

"Over a 2 1-2-hour flight you're constantly monitoring your gauges and your instruments and it's the same thing I feel in coaching. You're constantly monitoring your players and the momentum of the game, your matches and mismatches. It's very interesting."

A six-time Stanley Cup winner, the 49-year-old is working as a special assistant to New York Rangers president Glen Sather and turned to coaching as a way to expand his skill-set.

Messier served as Canada's general manager at the IIHF World Hockey Championship in May, when Hockey Canada chose not to ask any Olympians to play and the national team finished seventh.

He's still defining his approach and philosophies as a coach, but doesn't need any reminders of the demands on any hockey team with a Maple Leaf on it.

"Any time Canada enters an international tournament there are some high expectations for us," he said. "With that, I expect the team to play with a lot of heart. I like an aggressive game, a puck-pursuit game, but I also like a very disciplined game and players who play to win.

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"When you combine those things, we want a puck-control game, we want to have some systems in place where we can defend as a team and then hopefully let our talent work its way into the offence."

Not having to play on the opening day of the tournament may come in handy for the Canadians, after a record-sized team Christmas dinner Saturday included 54 kids and a visit from Santa Claus.

Messier may have been only half-joking when he quipped, "I think the extra day off will do everybody well."

But the festive night may come in as handy as a lively practice earlier in the day in terms of bonding the group together.

"For me, (the Christmas dinner) is something that's a big part of my success as a player," said Messier. "In Edmonton we always acknowledged players' families, wives and girlfriends and kids and made them feel a big part of the team because they are.

"Hockey Canada does a tremendous job doing the same thing, making families a big part of the Spengler Cup. I think the players realize that and in the end it inspires them to do well because of the way they've been treated."

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Serge Aubin, a veteran of seven NHL seasons who now plays for Swiss club Gotteron, will captain the 24-man squad. Former Vancouver Canucks prospect Josh Holden, who also plays for Gotteron, and Jean-Pierre Vigier of Swiss team Bern are the alternates.

Jeff Deslauriers, who played for the Edmonton Oilers last season, and Tyler Moss, another former NHLer, will split the duties in goal. Messier said he would decide on a starter for Monday after Sunday's practice.

Many of the players on the Spengler Cup team also played for Messier in the Swiss Challenge, teaming up to beat a Switzerland team 6-2. Their practice Saturday picked up from where they left off.

"The practice went pretty smooth," said Messier. "We ran over some drills we had run previously in November just trying to reinforce the systems and philosophy."

The other pool in this year's Spengler Cup - which has been held annually since 1923 and is the oldest professional international hockey tournament in the world - features Swiss club Geneve Servette, SKA St. Petersburg of Russia and Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic.

Canada has played in eight of the last 10 championship games, winning the event in 2002, 2003 and 2007. Messier is hoping to add 2009 to the list, and is thoroughly enjoying getting to know all his players.

"This is my first opportunity to really meet the guys and listen to their stories," he said. "Hockey players are a fraternity to themselves, we've all been through the same process, these guys all had dreams and it's an excellent opportunity for them to continue their dreams to be hockey players and make a living at it.

"I have a lot of respect for these players."

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