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Of Skinner, Selanne, the Flames and other ups

Stephen Harper, No. 64.

Ever since Sunday's road hockey game in Ottawa, political analysts have been trying to figure out why the Prime Minister of Canada would show up in a Team Canada jersey with "Harper" and the No. 64 on the back.

Was he honouring the fractious flag debate of 1964 that led to the familiar Hockey Canada logo? Was it a sop to Toronto voters, reminding them of that glorious year, 1964, when Bobby Baun scored in overtime on a broken leg to force Game 7 and take the Maple Leafs to a Stanley Cup? Was it a signal that the prime minister's favourite National Hockey League player is Jamie McGinn, who has worn No. 64 while scoring but a single goal for the San Jose Sharks?

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There was no figuring it out, so we are left with the image of the country's leader playing the national game - so what if it was a photo opportunity? - and a welcome reminder, as spring arrives, that this past hockey season was not entirely the game's annus horribilis, as it has been so portrayed in recent months.

Let us pause, then, as the regular season comes to an end, to remember some of the good things that happened on ice in 2010-11:

Youth: The rookies have been sensational in the NHL this year, especially seven-year-old Jeff Skinner, who never even got to wear long pants before the Carolina Hurricanes had him in the lineup. But Skinner, actually 18, is but one of many, including San Jose's Logan Couture, Montreal's P.K. Subban and Edmonton's Taylor Hall, the 2010 No. 1 draft pick who might have surprised as the rookie scoring leader had his late-season surge not been stopped by injury.

The Elderly: Anaheim's Teemu Selanne, at 40, scores five points in a single game and sits in the top 10 in league scoring. He's a child, however, compared to Boston's Mark Recchi, 43 and saying he'll keep going if Boston doesn't win the Stanley Cup this year.

The Quiet Achievers: A nice list, but would have to include Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis, Anaheim's Corey Perry, Vancouver's Ryan Kesler …

Calgary's Improbable Run: They laughed at Christmas when interim GM Jay Feaster took over and said he had a plan to move the team from rock bottom to the playoffs. With only days to go, the Flames are still not quite snuffed, a truly remarkable turnaround no matter what the final outcome. Any hockey fan who does not shiver at the play of goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff or applaud the 1,000-point career of Jarome Iginla is not a true fan of the game.

Toronto's final months: Some are likening it to the "dead-cat bounce" of the stock markets, but no matter what the explanation, the Maple Leafs have taken a lost year and found something worthwhile. The ridicule of the Phil Kessel trade, while still debatable in the future, has subsided, as have the calls for coach Ron Wilson's head. This dead cat has life.

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Sidney Crosby's 2010: It was looking like a Season for the Ages, Crosby's 66 points by New Year's Eve reminding fans of how Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky once dominated without peers. He would have taken half of the NHL's trophy hardware but for …

Sidney Crosby's 2011: Difficult as this is to say, it is just possible that Sidney Crosby's greatest contribution to the game came following his New Year's Day injury. He put a face, and a cost, on concussion, and his injury ignited a debate within hockey circles and an explosion in public opinion that may one day stand as a major turning point in the game at every level.

The Canucks' Rise: If brothers - Henrik and Daniel Sedin - can win back-to-back scoring championships, what other delights are to come for Vancouver? As ESPN points out, Montreal won the Stanley Cup the year after the 1976 Olympics, Calgary won the year following the 1988 Olympics, and one year after the brilliant Vancouver Games …

The Dignity of Mark Visentin: They cursed him and branded him a "choker" when Team Canada blew that third period against Russia in the world junior championship. He wept but did not hide in the dressing room. He faced his inquisitors and answered every question. "No one is to blame but me," he told this newspaper a few days later, even though there was blame enough for all. "I try and make myself accountable for what happens."

Saying the experience would make him "a better person," he promptly returned to his junior team and led the Niagara IceDogs into the playoffs, this past week sweeping the Brampton Battalion four games straight. In the series, he allowed but three goals and posted a stunning .977 save percentage.

"The goaltender can be a game-changer, and that is a great feeling," this remarkable 18-year-old said. "But if you're going to do that, you have to accept the ups and downs."

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We have seen enough downs this year. Let us pause to remember the ups.

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