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    Friday, February 20, 1998

    Old dogs exclusion raises questions

    By JIM O'LEARY -- SLAM! Sports
     NAGANO -- Hockey coaches usually say more by their actions than by their words. They speak to us in subtle ways.
     They never say, for instance, that a player is getting old and slow, they quietly move him off the power play. They never say a player is lazy, they quietly bench him in the late stages of a tie game.
     The message being delivered by Canada's Marc Crawford and the Czech Republic's Ivan Hlinka during Canada's 2-1 shootout loss early this morning seemed to have a similar ring. Neither coach seems to think much of the offensive ability of the current generation of Canadian players.
     Crawford made his feelings known when he chose defenceman Ray Bourque over the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman and Mark Recchi to represent Canada in the shootout. The Canadian coach seemed to be agreeing with Hlinka, who had already indicated his opinion of Canada's offensive prowess by playing for a tie in overtime, obviously believing he'd win a shootout.
     It's difficult to be critical of Team Canada. Custom usually dictates that we take a strip or two of their hides when they fail internationally. But it is hard to imagine this team giving any more of itself.
     To a man, they bought into the team concept sold to them by GM Bob Clarke and his coaching staff. Unlike Team USA, which embarassed itself with undisciplined play on the ice and undisciplined behaviour off it, Team Canada never resembled anything but a group of guys determined to win a gold medal.
     They had most components of a championship team. They had great work ethic and heart. They had checkers and scorers, skaters and bangers. They had outstanding goaltending and a solid, if unspectacular, defence. But what was lacking -- and what was made so evident by the inclusion of a defenceman in the shootout -- is that Team Canada was out-skilled in this tournament.
     The Czechs can showcase a cast of fancy puckhandlers led by Jaromir Jagr. Pavel Bure is the shiniest sequin decorating Russia's lineup. Even the Americans and the Swedes -- for all the good it did them -- had their Mike Modanos and Peter Forsbergs.
     But Team Canada, its gold-medal apsirations on the line, had to call on a defenceman to complete its shootout lineup.
     This is not meant to disparage Bourque. He is a future hall of famer, a veteran who has played the game in both ends of the rink as well as any defenceman of the past 20 years.
     His inclusion in the shootout, though, makes a statement about the condition of the Canadian game. With Joe Sakic out of the lineup with a knee injury and Paul Kariya nursing a concussion back home, there wasn't much left, the coaches seemed to conclude, in the way of pure offensive talent. In deliberations before the tournament the coaching staff apparently concluded that the Gretzkys and Yzermans had lost their touch.
     Controversy is nothing new to the coaches and management of this team. They indicated their disdain for the lash of public opinion two months ago when they excluded Mark Messier from the team. The Bourque selection, by comparison, must have been simple.
     Crawford said the decision to include Bourque in the shootout was based on his success on breakaways throughout a long career, and on his success in breakaway competitions at the annual NHL all-star game skills competition.
     "You go with your gut instincts," Crawford said.
     No one seemed more surprised than Bourque by the decision. In his long career, he says he has taken two penalty shots, scoring once.
     "I've never been in a situation like that before," he said. "It was a surprise to be selected to shoot. But I was called and I did my best."
     Hlinka, who has the Czechs playing great hockey, certainly seemed unintimidated by the Canadian offence. His team took just one shot in the overtime, content to run out the clock and then go to the shootout.
     As much as he respects Roy, Hlinka was willing to put his faith in Hasek. Like Crawford, the Czech coach had alredy concluded that Team Canada's best shooters ain't what they used to be.