Backup battle heats up at Canada camp

Canadian Press

8/18/2005 5:30:15 PM

KELOWNA, B.C. (CP) - Winning the backup job to Martin Brodeur on Canada's Olympic hockey team means more than just opening the door for teammates during games.

Given that Canada will play six games in eight days to start the Olympic tournament, the backup goalie will start at least one game in Turin, Italy.

"That's huge," Roberto Luongo said Thursday after practice at the orientation camp.

Luongo, Jose Theodore and Marty Turco are all looking to move next to Brodeur on the Canadian depth chart.

Luongo, 26, appears to have the inside track given his showing at the World Cup of Hockey last September. He stepped in for an injured Brodeur and won a thrilling semifinal over the Czech Republic at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

"Let me tell you, if Luongo doesn't play the way he did in the Czech game, we don't win the World Cup. It's as simple as that," said Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky. "And we now know what a guy like him can do."

Luongo had already backstopped Canada to back-to-back IIHF world championship gold medals in 2003 and 2004 but the World Cup semifinal game was his first taste of international hockey at the highest level.

"It was a big pressure situation, the most I've ever been under in my career, and the tournament was in Canada so the fans and the media were intense," said Luongo, who was spectacular in a 4-3 overtime win. "It wasn't an easy situation but it's the end result that counts.

"Experience-wise, that game gave me the most in my career."

Luongo continues to creep closer to Brodeur, although the Devils star remains the undisputed top goalie in the world. Theodore, 28, has done his bit as well, once again standing on his head to help Montreal upset Boston in the first round of the playoffs in April 2004. That performance got him on the World Cup team as the No. 3 goalie.

Turco of the Dallas Stars rounds out the group here this week, his 1.91 career NHL goals-against average the lowest of the four netminders. He'd be the starter for the U.S., Sweden or Slovakia, but he was born in a country that produces superstar goalie after superstar goalie so he may not go to the Olympics.

"And there's a lot of other goalies from Canada that deserve to be here," said Turco, 30. "But we're here to make each other better and that's such a Canadian thing, we keep pushing each other and supporting each other this week."

Gretzky believes the younger trio is making a real strong push.

"Let's face it, we expect Marty (Brodeur) to be our go-to guy," said Gretzky. "But I'll tell you this, the young guys - the Luongos, the Theodores and the Turcos - those guys have tightened the gap. They've gotten better. This experience of playing in world championships and World Cups have made those guys better players. I don't think there's any question that these guys are going to push Marty."

Still, three months of hockey isn't going to change the goalie food chain on this team.

"There's no guarantee but let's be honest, if you're going to go to war right now, Marty's been the most reliable of any goaltender in hockey since Patrick Roy. Simple as that," Gretzky said.

Brodeur, 33, insists he's not acting as if the job is his. He likes the competition.

"I definitely won't let myself think that," Brodeur said. "Those guys are there to take my job so I need to be better. And I want to make sure the other guys are ready, too. Look at what happened at the World Cup, I got hurt. If they don't keep them somewhat alive, tell them they have a chance to play, I don't think it's fair to the other guys.

"That's the way it should have been every year. I was on the other end of it once, and I didn't really like it. And I don't want guys to live through that." 

Brodeur was referring to the Nagano Olympics in 1998, when he was told on the plane leaving Vancouver for Japan that he would not dress for a single game. Patrick Roy would not give up a start, even though many thought Brodeur should have been played in the bronze medal game.

"It's important that everyone feels they have a role on this team," Brodeur said. "They told me in 2002 (in Salt Lake City) I would play at least one game and I was really excited. Just to have that chance ... and hopefully these guys will feel the same way, that they'll play one game or two."

For Luongo, playing one game in Turin would mean the world.

"Especially the fact that it's in Italy, that's where my family is from," said Luongo. "It's special that it's going to be there. If I get a chance to play in a game it would be a very special thing."

Theodore said he'll keep it simple. If he helps the Habs to a great start this season, invariably it will help his case for the Olympic team.

"For myself, it's out of my control," Theodore said. "I can only play my best and see what happens. Obviously I want to be part of it, that would be a great experience. But I feel like I did everything I did and I'm happy with the way I played and I'm not picked, it's up to them. I can help Montreal out by helping myself out also."

Turco endeared himself to Hockey Canada when he went to the world championship in Austria this spring to be the No. 3 goalie behind Brodeur and Luongo. Turco, a franchise goalie with all-star numbers, never dressed for single game while spending an entire month in Europe with the team.

"For me, it wasn't a shot to the ego, it was an opportunity to go practise with them and maybe play, I never even second-guessed my decision to go," he said. "I didn't even know there was an option to say no to Canada if asked. It was a no-brainer for me to go. It's going to make me a better person and goaltender for having gone."

The goalie battle on Team Canada has been contentious at times in the past. but not with these four guys. They hang out together and can be seen joking around together during practice. It's a healthy environment.

"They're all great guys, I've played with all of them before," said Luongo. "We have a good friendship between us."

Gretzky likes what he sees.

"I would have no problem playing any of the four guys we have right now in our net," he said.