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May 11, 2003 - Canadians' attitude lifts them to gold
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Canadians' attitude lifts them to gold

HELSINKI (CP) - There was a hand-written message in the Canadian hockey team's dressing room on Sunday: "Tomorrow's practice is cancelled. NO ONE LEFT TO BEAT!"

Canada conquered the hockey world on Sunday, beating star-studded Sweden 3-2 in overtime and ending a five-year drought on the medal podium. Why this collection of players succeeded where recent Canadian teams didn't is answered by looking at how general manager Steve Tambellini put the team together.

The vice-president of player personnel for the Vancouver Canucks deserves credit for not simply taking the best players available, but bringing together 23 personalities that he thought would quickly mesh to form a championship team in short time.

"I'll tell you why we won," Tambellini said while watching his players celebrate. "Because the philosophy of this team is exactly the same of any Canadian team: an obvious skill level, an obvious determination, but a heart that's as big as the Canadian flag.

"These players demonstrated that as much as anyone who has ever worn the jersey and a great example for anyone who wants to wear it again."

These players wanted to be here. The cardinal mistake in years past was having NHL general managers force players to come over, only to have malcontents sulk for three weeks and pack it in early. You can't form team chemistry that way.

"We worked really hard towards getting this team together," said New York Rangers forward Anson Carter, who scored the gold medal winner 13:49 into overtime. "We held team meetings away from the rink. We just tried hard to get to know each other and become a family.

"In order to win a championship you have to trust each other on and off the ice. And right now these guys are like my best friends."

The Canadian team was devastated when Boston star centre Joe Thornton rejected Tambellini's invitation after thinking about it for a weekend. In retrospect, it may have been a blessing in disguise.

"The overwhelming part of this is how quickly these players said yes to be part of this team," said a champagne-soaked Tambellini. "There will always be, for whatever reason, people who can't play for Canada.

"But this group was so quick to say yes and so passionate about it."

Tambellini, along with his assistant Don Maloney and Jim Nill, didn't pick up the phone when the Tampa Bay Lightning were eliminated from the NHL post-season and Canada had two more round-robin games to play.

They could have invited Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, but Tambellini's decided that would be unfair to the original group who had committed right from the get-go.

"There's a common denominator in this group. You didn't have to convince anyone to get here," Tambellini said. "They knew no one else was coming to take their spots, and they came together quickly."

On the ice, Canada had four solid forward lines that all contributed big goals at different times.

The Canadian teams that lost in the quarter-finals in 2001 and 2002 relied on one line to score and when the opposing team found a way to stop them, it was quickly the end of the line.

"We didn't rely on one person or one line, it was such a team effort," said Detroit veteran Kris Draper, who was outstanding shutting down Swedish star Peter Forsberg in Sunday's game.

"You look at our goaltending - Sean Burke gets hurt and Robert Luongo comes in and plays an unbelievable game for us. Talk about pressure and what he had to do.

"I'm a big believer in chemistry," said Draper. "When we won in Detroit that was one the biggest reasons. No one wanted to let anyone else down in this dressing room. This is so special because everybody helped this team win. We didn't rely on a superstar."

Head coach Andy Murray is also a major cog in this victory. Along with a superb staff that included Mike Pelino, Barry Trotz and Rob Cookson, Murray won rave reviews from his players who felt they were well prepared for the international game and their opposition.

Murray brought the experience of his gold medal from the 1997 world tournament and his vast knowledge of the European game after coaching in Switzerland for a decade.

He outcoached his counterpart in all nine games and managed to keep Draper on Forsberg in two games against Sweden.

But Murray refused to talk about himself after Sunday's victory, pointing the finger to a group of players he said was a pleasure to coach.

His last speech of the tournament prepared his players for a battle.

"We talked about this being a trench warfare game and how Canadians battled in the First World War," Murray said.

"I just tried to explain to these young players what trench warfare was, how you gain a foot, you dig in, they push you back, you dig in and you keep moving forward.

"I asked which guys they would want to have beside them in the trenches if this was a war and they indicated it was the guys they were in the room with."

And as the players danced and hugged in the same dressing room Canadians did six years ago when it won gold at Hartwall Arena, it seemed like they had played together forever instead of playing their first game as a team just over two weeks ago.

"To have these NHL guys who make millions of dollars sacrifice basically a month of their time and not get paid for it just so they can represent their country, it's really phenomenal," said defenceman Jamie Heward, who played in the Swiss Elite League this year.

"By winning this I think you're going to see a lot of guys not turning down the chance to be here next year."

Shane Doan and Shawn Horcoff also scored for Canada on Sunday. Luongo was stellar in goal, particularly in overtime when Sweden outshot Canada 12-5.

Burke, who was injured in Friday's semifinal win against the Czech Republic, was named top goaltender of the tournament and 19-year-old Jay Bouwmeester was chosen best defenceman.

Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin, a dominant player in Sunday's final, was selected as the tournament MVP and top forward.

The Canadian Press, 2003