Russia is team to beat for hockey gold, Yzerman says

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Guelph Mercury (Ontario, Canada)

Vancouver — With the most anticipated hockey event this country has ever hosted soon to begin, the architect of Team Canada has declared Russia the favourite to win gold at the Olympics.

Whether it’s just a subtle way to ramp up the pressure on the two-time world champs or to take some heat off his own squad – Team Canada’s executive directors have a history of influencing the nation’s mindset in these tournaments (See Wayne Gretzky’s ‘us against the world’ speech in Salt Lake City) — Yzerman left little doubt who he believes stands in the way of the Canucks celebrating gold.

“The Russians have won the last two world championships,” said Team Canada’s executive director on Saturday.

“They’re bringing their best players. They have some of the top forwards in the world right now. They’re the No.1-ranked team in the world right now. They’re the favourites going into this tournament. We have to play our best and with a little bit of luck, the other counties can somehow dethrone them.”

Yzerman, waiting for the players to check in for a first practice on Monday, met with the media and impressed with his eloquence on a wide variety of topics. But, clearly, talk that the bulk of the pressure in on Canada to win on its own ice in what may be the NHL’s last participation in the Olympics doesn’t sit well.

“Honestly, do you think they’ll have a parade in Moscow if the Russians go home with a silver medal? They won’t. The expectation in Russia is gold,” he said.

“The expectation in Sweden is gold. Whether they admit it or not, the USA is in this to win a gold medal. I won’t forget any other countries as well. All of us are playing to win the tournament, to win a gold medal and every team that doesn’t will be disappointed.”

Canada will kick off its preliminary round against Norway on Tuesday and will follow with games against Switzerland and the United States. Those games are just for seeding purposes. After that, teams face a one-game elimination through to the final on Feb.28. Yzerman likened it to a playoff series.

“To me, it’s a Stanley Cup final,” he said. “Basically, you’re going to play six or seven games to win a gold medal. You’ve got the first three games, (where) much like an NHL playoff series … you’re not possibly eliminated until the fourth game. There’s basically a week to figure it out before you face elimination.”

While much of the talk is about 2010 Olympic tournament, Yzerman also made an impassioned argument for the NHL to remain in the Olympics for 2014 and beyond, saying it would be “a mistake” to pull out now.

Some NHL owners don’t like shutting down in mid-season but the NHL’s participation in the Games is something that much be collectively bargained.

“I believe in the three Olympic Games (in which) the NHL has participated has enhanced the game,” he said.

“It has been great for hockey. We’ve had three different gold medal winners. It’s been great for the game and great for the NHL and I can tell you, as a former player, and playing with a lot of these guys and knowing them, they love being a part of it. It’s an incredible honour for them.”

“So, my opinion is that it would be a mistake for us to not be involved, regardless of the inconvenience and whatnot, it would be a mistake for the game if we’re not involved.”

February 15, 2010