DAVOS - I've seen some remarkable efforts by Canadian teams at the Spengler Cup over the years. It's a cliché, to be sure, but, whenever Canada comes to a tournament like this, time is the greatest opponent. Will there be enough time for the team to develop?
Will they have time to sort out proper powerplay or penalty killing units? Will there be enough time for them to truly become the team they can?
At big international tournaments, like the Olympics for example, it's hardly a challenge unique to Canada. But at a tournament like the Spengler Cup, where you're meeting largely intact club teams in mid-season form, it is a problem that only Team Canada faces.
If I had to pick one team over the years that I've been coming to the Spengler that best exemplified the overcoming of adversity, it would, without a doubt, be the team that won the 2003 championship. It was coached by my old friend Gary Green and, aside from the aforementioned issues of team chemistry, this team was the recipient of the nastiest flu bug I'd ever seen tear through a team.
It was a grim sight. A couple of hours before game time and I had wandered into the Team Canada coach's office to check on a couple of things. It's not polite to stare, but I couldn't take my eyes off what I saw. There were four players, either hunched over or sitting, hooked up to IV units. All four of the players - and several others on this particular team - were suffering from dehydration because of a particularly vicious flu bug that had been ravaging the club since day one. It was two hours before the championship game, and they were going to try to play.
"Why bother", thought I, the reporter guy.
Canada had toughed it out to the championship game. It was a rough road as teams were then forced to play five games in six days. There were the usual variety of sprains and strains that any hockey team contends with. But that flu bug - it was merciless. The Bug showed up on day one of the tournament, settled in and made itself at home, and went on to infect more than half of the team at one point or another. In the worst cases - and there were about eight players who fell into that category - guys couldn't keep food or liquid in either end for very long. Players became dehydrated. Throw in the rigors of a high intensity hockey game and the toll was taken. Some players could barely sit straight, never mind play a full shift. But there they were, all hands on deck, IV tubes in arm, and ready to suffer through the last game.
They fell behind early and looked, well, like a sick team. But through force of will, they turned what could of been a route around and into a Canadian victory. A few of the players didn't have the strength to celebrate. It was right back to bed.
Now, don't kid yourself here. Real heroes run into burning buildings to save people or risk their lives for great causes - they don't chase pucks around. But, still, in the context of sports, there was something heroic and selfless about what many of those sick players accomplished.
When I asked "why?", there was no great answer. They ranged from "because I didn't want to let the other guys down" to a shrug and something about "just doing my job."
I've covered international hockey for almost 25 years and seen some great players and teams. But I'll never forget the dedication shown by a bunch of guys who most North American hockey fans wouldn't even recognize. Guys who played through pain and hardship, not for glory or cash, but for fun and because they didn't want to let their teammates down.
Is there anything more "hockey" than that?