Sunday, September 12, 2004

Lightning bolt decides thriller
Canada can thank injured Yzerman for unselfish attitude
Lecavalier joins Henderson, Lemieux in Canuck puck lore


Canadians can offer a collective nod of thanks today to an absent warrior for its berth in the 2004 World Cup final.

If Steve Yzerman had insisted, after all, he could have kept his position on Team Canada, and Vincent Lecavalier would never have been in the building last night to become his country's latest international scoring hero.

Lecavalier joined a glorious list last night, putting his name alongside Paul Henderson in 1972, Darryl Sittler in 1976, Mike Bossy in 1984 against the Russians in overtime, Mario Lemieux from Wayne Gretzky in 1987 and Anson Carter in overtime at the world championships last year.

But without Yzerman's selflessness — and some clutch goaltending from a wobbly Roberto Luongo to prevent the gallant Czechs from wrecking the moment — Lecavalier would never have become part of that illustrious group of Canadians who scored with defeat at hand.

Yzerman, you may remember, spent the summer dealing with an eye injury, a sore knee and a new problem with a herniated disc in his neck as he contemplated his place on Team Canada '04.

He'd played through such injuries before, many times. At the 2002 Olympics, he was basically a player skating on one leg with mashed knee ligaments in the other, but he performed well enough to be part of Canada's top line en route to gold.

This time, he was the lone player notified in advance that he would be named to the Canadian roster, such is the respect Wayne Gretzky has for the Detroit Red Wing captain.

As the summer wore on, Gretzky kept checking in, wondering if Yzerman would be able to play, wondering when he would be able to commit.

As training camp drew near in August, Yzerman agonized over the decision, but finally decided that even though he was healthy enough to play, he couldn't help the team.

Not an easy thing for such a proud athlete to admit.

But Yzerman went further. He told Gretzky that the 24-year-old Lecavalier was just the player to replace him, and in his mind he almost certainly looked back to the 1996 World Cup and a roster filled with too many worn veterans that couldn't get it done in the end against the Americans.

He undoubtedly felt this was the perfect time to hand the baton to another member of Canada's ongoing relay from generation to generation of hockey bluebloods.

He was proven right. Lecavalier made it so.

When Lecavalier showed that sublime skill for which he has long been recognized last night at 3:45 of the first overtime to beat the Czechs, you have to believe Yzerman was watching and smiling.

Remember that list of Canadian scoring heroes? Yzerman's on it, too.

He scored eight years ago in OT against Sweden to push Canada into the World Cup final, and here, eight years later, was his injury replacement doing the very same thing.

So add Yzerman in '96 against the Swedes to that list.

Maybe he would have made a difference last night as well, but it's also reasonable to suggest that only a handful of players in the world could have made the shot Lecavalier did to win the game.

When he scored, after fanning on his first attempt, he was skating backwards away from the net at a terrible angle with all the expectations of his country on his shoulders, and he drained it.

Drained it with the same cool as another Canadian lefty, Mike Weir, exhibited on the 18th green to win the 2003 Masters.

Until then, Lecavalier wasn't exactly having the most memorable night of his young career.

For much of the game, it seemed he wasn't seeing the ice much, a byproduct of the Canadian coaching staff's commitment to playing Kris Draper, Shane Doan and Joe Thornton against the top Czech line featuring Jaromir Jagr.

Lecavalier was the Canadian player pulled down by Jiri Fischer. This created a power play for Canada in the second period, and he also was the player kneeling in front just before Fischer was to return to the ice and accidentally used his behind to block a Brad Richards shot headed for the open net.

Fortuitously for Lecavalier and Canada, the puck bounced directly to Mario Lemieux, who whipped it home to make it 2-0.

Lecavalier drew a dubious assist for that one, and the next time his name was announced it again wasn't for a wondrous deed.

The call was dreadful by referee Paul Devorski, but nonetheless Lecavalier was sent off for holding Roman Hamrlik in the offensive zone in the seventh minute of the third, and 41 seconds later Martin Havlat scored to tie the game 2-2.

But the play that will be remembered was how the Man Formerly Known as The Michael Jordan of Hockey somehow turned a one-on-three rush in OT into his first gigantic contribution to Canadian shinny history.

Canada's youth, so jittery and uncertain much of the night, was finally served, making the selflessness of an absent warrior a contribution too important to overlook.