The NHL's future in Canada appears cloudy, but Canadians' future in the game seems bright. Perhaps even golden.
Team Canada earned a berth in the final of the World Junior Hockey Championships with a tense 3-2 victory over the U.S. on Friday, another gem on a string begun when Canada won the women's and men's Olympic gold medals at Salt Lake City. Canada's juniors will face Russia for the title today at the Metro Centre in Halifax, Canada, a rematch of a game won last year by Russia, 5-4.
Canada outshot the stoic but young U.S. team, 42-15, but couldn't fluster goalie Bob Goepfert, a Pittsburgh Penguin prospect. A bad clearing pass in the U.S. zone created a chance for defenseman Jeff Woywitka, a 2001 Philadelphia Flyer first-round draft pick, and he rifled a wrist shot off Goepfert's arm for the winner with 8:20 left in the third period.
"I think my heart skipped a beat when that thing went in," Woywitka said. "Anytime you can score a goal for your country and put yourself in a situation where you can go for the gold the next game, it's a big goal."
Jamie Storr of the Kings, who led Canada to the 1994 title and was voted the tournament's top goalie, knows what Woywitka feels.
"I was fortunate to be on great teams, and it's in the history books and in my memory forever," he said. "Regardless if they ever play in the NHL, those kids are playing for their country and can achieve one of the greatest things they'll ever achieve."
Team USA, which has never won the tournament and hasn't medaled since it won silver in 1997, will face Finland for the bronze medal today. "If we play the same type of game [today], we'll give Finland all they can handle," U.S. Coach Lou Vairo said.
Russia and Canada each have 5-0-0 records. Russia has scored 25 goals to 24 for Canada, and each team has allowed eight. Canada's Carlo Colaiacovo is the top scorer with a goal and 10 points, but Russia's Yuri Trubachev (nine points) and Igor Grigorienko (eight points) are close. Russian winger Alexander Ovechkin, projected to be the first pick in the 2004 NHL draft, is the top goalscorer, with six.
"You want to see progress so the [NHL] will stay strong and there will be a lot of fun players to watch in this league for years to come," Storr said.
Kings of the Hills
Bode Miller won his second straight World Cup giant slalom Saturday, becoming the first U.S. skier since Phil Mahre in 1983 to lead the World Cup overall standings.
Miller's combined time of 2 minutes, 4.15 seconds at Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, beat Christian Mayer of Austria by 0.83 seconds and vaulted him past a hobbled Stephan Eberharter to the top of the overall standings. Miller also passed Michael von Gruenigen of Switzerland to lead the giant slalom standings.
Miller was third after the first run but attacked the second run and had the best time in that leg. Erik Schlopy of Park City, Utah, tied for fourth at 2:05.55, his best result this season.
"If they gave me a trophy for being in the lead in January, that'd be fine," said Miller, who will compete in a slalom today. "But we have to wait to the end, and there's a long way to go, a lot of stuff in between now and the end."
U.S. men have won three consecutive races. Daron Rahlves sandwiched a downhill victory last week between Miller's giant slalom wins two weeks ago and Saturday. Equally surprising is the Austrian men have gone seven straight races without winning.
Don't Fence Him In
When Soren Thompson tells people he's a fencer, he usually gets blank stares or questions about "The Three Musketeers" and other swashbuckling film heroes.
"People mostly are intrigued. They've heard of it, but they don't know much about it," the San Diego resident said. "They think it's what they see in the movies. It's a little less dramatic."
But no less absorbing to Thompson, 21, ranked third in the U.S. and 84th in the world in epee, one of three fencing weapons. The others are foil and saber.
Thompson, a junior at Princeton, hopes to qualify for the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. He will take one of the first steps at the North American Cup competition Jan. 17-20 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, one of the largest annual competitions in the U.S.
"The sport just fascinates me," Thompson said while home for the holiday break. "It's intellectual. It's mostly strategizing but it also involves various physical aspects."
Thompson took up fencing when he was 7 and trained at UC San Diego. He began traveling to Los Angeles for advanced lessons when he was 12 or 13.
"I started competing in under-13, under-15 and under-17 events and made my first world championship team when I was 16," said Thompson, who lifts weights to stay in shape at 6-3 and 185 pounds.
He won the NCAA title as a freshman and was second as a sophomore. This year, his first at the senior level, he finished seventh at the Stockholm World Cup in June, a week after he and two other epee fencers finished fourth at the Poitiers World Cup team event in France. That was the best result for a U.S. men's epee team since 1985.
"I'm still fairly young as epee fencers go. But I think I have a good chance to get to the Olympics because of what I've done," he said. "The good result in Stockholm makes me feel I'm rising internationally, though I know it takes a while."
Here and There
Olympic figure skating silver medalist and world champion Irina Slutskaya was upset by Elena Sokolova last week at the Russian championships. Slutskaya hasn't won a major competition this season and has looked uninspired. She finished third at the Cup of Russia and second at the NHK Trophy Grand Prix events, and last month was third in a field of five at the Crest Whitestrips Figure Skating Challenge and second to Yuka Sato in the Hallmark pro-am competition. Sokolova was seventh at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and didn't qualify for the Salt Lake City Games.
Fumie Suguri won the Japanese women's title, ahead of Yoshie Onda and Shizuka Arakawa. Miki Ando, who recently became the first woman to land a quadruple jump in competition, didn't repeat her historical feat and finished fifth.
Hayley Wickenheiser of Canada's champion women's hockey team is trying out with a second-division Finnish team and could become the first female position player in a men's professional league. Canada's Globe and Mail reported Wickenheiser and Team Salamat in the Finnish city of Kirkkonummen agreed to a 30-day deal, which either side can cancel. She's a sturdy 5-9 and 170 pounds but risks being hurt by stronger, beefier male opponents. The other women who have played in men's pro leagues, such as Manon Rheaume, Erin Whitten and Danielle Dube, were goalies and weren't open to the kinds of hits forwards absorb.