HALIFAX – The players shuffled through the interview area one by one Thursday and it quickly became evident what kind of message Team Canada had been delivered on the eve of the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’re humble in our approach,” said captain Shane Doan. Echoed sniper Rick Nash: “We’re coming into this humble.” Ah, yes, the humble hosts. How typically Canadian.
The first world championship ever held in this country officially kicks off Friday and features an afternoon game between Canada and Slovenia at the Metro Centre (3:30 p.m. ET).
The Slovenian team features just one NHLer in Anze Kopitar and was beaten 8-0 the last time it played Canada in a world championship game. Still, Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock is making sure that everyone remains focused on the task at hand.
“The humble approach means don’t just expect that you’re going to have success because you’re sitting at home,” he said. “Don’t rely on the people in the stands to motivate you. We’ve got to do it ourselves.
“It’s always been us against the world when you go to Europe. This is different, we’ve got people pulling for us but don’t expect them to do the playing. We’ve got to do the heavy lifting.”
The support is building.
Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald stood on a stage with the Canadian players for a lunchtime pep rally Thursday and urged the team on. Hundreds of people filled the square in front of city hall and later converged on the players for photos, handshakes and autographs.
One young boy named Mitchell ended up walking a few steps with Doan and telling him about his own budding hockey career.
“To have all those people show up – that’s a Thursday on a pretty cool afternoon,” marvelled Doan. “There was a lot of little kids too.”
Slovenia is a hockey minnow when compared to some of the heavyweights at this world championship. The team’s media guide says that slightly more than 100 adults play hockey in a country with just seven arenas.
“If we can keep it down to maybe five goals that would be good,” said Kopitar.
The Canadians aren’t buying it.
“Don’t believe him,” said assistant coach Mike Johnston. “He’s the type of player that may say that but he’s going to go out tomorrow and he’s going to try and dominate the game.
“We don’t want to fall into a trap of thinking that they have that mindset at all.”
There are plenty of examples from over the years of smaller countries pulling off big upsets at this event.
Canada didn’t lose a game at last year’s world championship but still had some nervous moments during a 3-2 win over Germany and 4-2 victory over Norway. In 2004, Canada tied Austria 2-2. A year before that, they had a 2-2 draw with Denmark.
“We’re not looking ahead of ourselves at all,” said Nash.
The Canadian team has as strong a lineup on paper as it as ever had for this event, save for the 2005 tournament that was played during the NHL lockout.
Seven of the top 21 NHL scorers will wear one of the impressive new Canadian jerseys in the coming weeks. That group doesn’t even include Nash, the MVP of last year’s tournament.
“They have a lot of firepower,” said Kopitar.
Not that the humble Canadians are saying so.
The team held a five-day training camp in Quebec City and played two exhibition games – a 3-2 win over Finland and a 4-1 loss to Russia. After travelling to Halifax, it held two high-tempo practices in preparation for the tournament.
Everyone’s ready to go now.
“It’s about right,” said forward Jason Spezza. “We’ve had some good practices. As much as it’s been dragging on a bit, it’s been helping us. But I’m sure we’ll be a little rusty to start.”
There were still some tickets available a night before the game against Slovenia but the Metro Centre was expected to be rocking come game time.
The home team isn’t the only one excited to be part of the first world hockey championship ever staged here.
“Playing in Canada is something that doesn’t happen every day,” said Kopitar. “I’m sure everybody is going to be nervous but we’ve got nothing to lose. We’re just going to go out and have fun.”
The Canadian players seem to have genuinely enjoyed all the positive attention they’ve received so far in Halifax.
“You can tell the city’s really embraced us and I think we’re trying to embrace the city,” said Spezza. “We really want to enjoy ourselves here.”