Canada gets ready for worlds quarter-final
With Staal absent, Sens' Spezza moves back to second line against Norway
HALIFAX — One by one, they filed onto the ice with huge smiles - kids in replica Team Canada jerseys, wives clutching cameras, grandparents simply taking it all in.
But there was a serious side to family picture day, too. It's one of the last times the whole Canadian entourage could count on being together at this IIHF World Hockey Championship.
"Things can change very quickly and you can be out of the tournament in one game," said GM Steve Yzerman.
With a quarter-final match against Norway looming Wednesday (3:30 p.m., TSN, Team 1200), no one expects that to happen. Still, even the most optimistic among the group recognized that they better take some pictures just in case.
One Canadian player was notably absent as family and friends joined the team on the Metro Centre ice after Tuesday's practice. Eric Staal had returned home to Thunder Bay, Ont., earlier in the morning to attend the funeral of his 80-year-old grandfather John Staal, who died on Sunday.
He'll only rejoin the team if it beats Norway in his absence and moves on to Quebec City, where the semifinal and medal games will be played this weekend.
"He wants to join us in Quebec and this just gives our team further motivation to get there," said coach Ken Hitchcock. "Sad situation, Eric was really close to his grandfather.
"He still wants to continue to play and join us. It's our obligation to get the team to Quebec."
In the meantime, they'll have Ottawa Senators centre Jason Spezza fill his spot between Derek Roy and Martin St. Louis.
Spezza has averaged just over 10 minutes in ice time a game to this point, which is well below what he normally plays for the Senators and is among the lowest totals seen by any of the Canadian players. He admits that it's been a bit tough to accept a reduced role but has tried to embrace it for the good of the team.
"I believe in karma," said Spezza. "I think I've handled the situation pretty good and tried to be pretty positive with it.
"Hopefully, I can contribute in the latter part (of the event) when the games mean a lot here down the stretch."
Sam Gagner has been looking to make a contribution and will finally get that chance. He's officially been added to the Canadian roster and will suit up against Norway.
The 18-year-old member of the Edmonton Oilers was the youngest player in the NHL this season and has been with this Canadian team as the extra forward. He watched the first six games from the press box and thinks this experience might actually end up being a bit easier.
"I think there's more nerves watching than actually playing," said Gagner. "Obviously when you're playing you have a little more control. When you're not, it's a little tougher."
One of the games he watched was Canada's qualification round meeting with Norway. It ended up being a tense game that was tied 1-1 until Rick Nash scored the winner on a great individual rush with just less than four minutes to play.
That was a bit of an eye-opener for the Canadians, who looked much better in subsequent wins over Germany and Finland.
Norway has already entered unfamiliar territory by reaching its first ever quarter-final at this level and is approaching the game believing it can pull off an unlikely upset.
"You have to believe it, of course," said coach Roy Johansen.
The country has produced just two current NHLers and neither is with the team. Roughly half of the players are in the domestic league back home and hold part-time jobs on the side to supplement their income.
Goalie Pal Grotnes and forward Erik Skadsammen are each carpenters. The team also has a kindergarten teacher, electrician and garage door installer.
"We've got it all covered," said defenceman Anders Myrvold, a former NHLer. "If you need anything, just give us a call. You can't call the Canadian team — they can only play hockey."
His joke only illustrates the gap between the countries in both talent and expectation.
Canada has won 15 straight world championship games and is considered the favourite to claim gold here by many of the foreign media covering the event. It must win three more games in a row to make it happen.
There is no room for error so the pressure is increasing.
"This is why our team was built," said Hitchcock. "It was built for the game tomorrow night. We're built to play in really important playoff games.
"It doesn't matter who the opponent is - we don't care who the opponent is."
Norway faces long odds but is thrilled to even have a chance.
One of that country's most memorable hockey triumphs was a 4-3 victory over Canada at the 2000 world championship in Russia. Hitchcock was asked what kind of reaction Canadian fans would have if that feat was repeated on Wednesday.
"I don't know," he responded. "I'm going back to Columbus."