Team Canada passing torch to young guns

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If the Americans are the golden oldies of this World Cup of Hockey tournament, Canada would be generation next.

While Team USA returns 11 players from the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and boast 17 players over the age of 30, the Canadians have completely re-tooled since the 1996 tournament, turning their considerable World Cup of Hockey hopes over to a fresh-faced crew of rising stars.

Where any Canadian all-star team would feature the familiar faces of Eric Lindros, Paul Kariya and Joe Nieuwendyk, young players like Dany Heatley, Shane Doan, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis now hold down those coveted roster spots.

In all, only seven members of the Canadian roster are 30 or older and 12 are 25 years of age or younger.

"I think it's really nice to see that, how the future will be," said Canadian netminder Martin Brodeur, one of the few greybeards on the Canadian roster at age 32.

"The success we got in the World Championships as of late came from these young guys. It didn't come from the older guys. Nobody that's over 30 usually likes to go and play over there, so the success we got from them. So now they have their chance to play in the big tournament. It's kind of nice."

But winning a tournament far from home that even Canadians do not follow all that closely is a world away from what these young men are about to experience. They will be playing in front of emotional home crowds in Montreal and Toronto.

"For us it's a learning process," Brodeur explained. "Like I was when I was young, it's not easy to come out and play at that level. I think these games are there for them to get used to it, to see how important it is to play for your country. It's something to play for your country when you're outside the country, but when you're right in your country and playing for it, it's a little different atmosphere. And everybody has to learn to play with that, too."

And there's the rub for a Canadian team that, on paper, seems to be a runaway favorite, given its depth and skill.

It is one thing to be handed the torch. It is another to accidentally burn down the building in the process.

And that is the challenge facing Joe Thornton, Brad Richards and Scott Hannan, all getting their first chance to breathe the rarified air of hockey at this level. How will those young players shoulder the sometimes uneasy burden of a nation's hockey hopes?

"I think there's a lot of eagerness to prove that the traditions that Canadian hockey has established can be carried on by us," said Shane Doan, one of Canada's top players in Monday's 3-1 exhibition loss to the U.S. "I wouldn't consider it an issue. There is youth, but there's also lots of experience."

Indeed, the Canadian lineup boasts every major award winner from last season, with the exception of the rookie of the year: St. Louis (Hart, Art Ross), Brodeur (Vezina), Scott Niedermayer (Norris), Brad Richards (Conn Smythe) and Kris Draper (Selke).

Consider the accomplishments of this young set of players.

St. Louis, Richards and Vincent Lecavalier are coming off a Stanley Cup win in Tampa. Bouwmeester, who isn't likely to see much playing time, has been on hand for the past two World Championship wins by Canada. Simon Gagne and Jarome Iginla were both members of the gold-medal effort in Salt Lake City, and Iginla led his Calgary Flames to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final less than three months ago.

"The pressure's always going to be there every time you play for Team Canada," said Hannan, who was added to the squad after Rob Blake withdrew because of injury.

Hannan's strong playoff effort for San Jose earned him consideration even though more experienced defensemen like Bryan McCabe were left off the roster.

Still, there remains an element of the "pinch me, I must be dreaming" for many of the young stars, an element that can't be allowed to over-ride the hockey skills that brought them here in the first place.

St. Louis recalled how after a recent team meal he found himself sitting at a table with linemate Mario Lemieux, Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky and Brodeur.

"I was just listening to them," St. Louis said. "I wish I could have stopped that moment forever.

"There's a lot of new blood. Does that put pressure on us? A little bit. But that's what it's all about. The torch has to get passed every few years."

As for playing on a line with Lemieux, a hero to an entire generation of French Canadian hockey players, St. Louis shakes his head.

"It's crazy," he said. "Right now I'm just very honored to be on Mario's line. But it's something I have to earn every day."

Lemieux, of course, represents more than just a veteran presence on this team. He is a living link to one of Canada's greatest hockey moments, a living reminder of the past and a real reminder of the responsibility this Canadian team shoulders to do nothing less than excel.

"The three days we were in Canada, Mario looked really strong," Gretzky told reporters in Columbus. "He's in tremendous shape. He's really excited to play. For our team and our country he brings more to this than playing for our team. He's our captain and our leader and he's extremely unselfish with the guys in the locker room and takes a lot of pressure off players on our team and deflects a lot of the pressure off these guys. So we're really lucky."

It was Gretzky, of course, who helped draw from Lemieux his greatest effort in the 1987 Canada Cup when many of Lemieux's current teammates were watching the games in their pajamas. With Gretzky at the peak of his powers, Lemieux learned what it was to play at the highest level, but what it was to be a leader at that level.

The best-of-three final against Russia is considered by many to represent the best hockey games ever played at the international level, perhaps anywhere at any time. Late in the third game with the score tied 5-5, Gretzky broke down the left wing and instead of passing to an open Larry Murphy in the slot, he dropped a pass to Lemieux, whose rising shot gave Canada the victory.

Through the passage of time, that goal has been imbued with greater symbolism, the passing of the torch from the game's greatest to another legend.

Gretzky is now the architect of Canada's international teams as well as a part-owner of the Phoenix Coyotes. Closing in on 39 years, Lemieux is also an owner, and it seems almost certain this will be Lemieux's final hurrah with a team of this sort.

The fact he may play with Richards and St. Louis provides ample opportunity for a similarly dramatic passing of the torch that burns so brightly for a country's hockey hopes.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.