Lemieux to captain Canada's Olympic team

Friday, March 23rd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TORONTO (AP) _ Mario Lemieux will captain Canada's hockey team at the 2002 Olympics, leading a list of eight players named Friday by Wayne Gretzky.

The star and owner of the National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins was joined by defensemen Rob Blake of the Colorado Avalanche, Scott Niedermayer of the New Jersey Devils, Chris Pronger of the St. Louis Blues and forwards Paul Kariya of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Owen Nolan of the San Jose Sharks, Joe Sakic of the Colorado Avalanche and Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings.

``There's always controversy in players selected,'' said Gretzky, the executive director of the Canadian national team. ``We felt in selecting these eight players ... that these eight players will don the sweater and play extremely well for us and be a big part hopefully of bringing us a gold medal.''

Among the toughest players to leave off the list was St. Louis defenseman Al MacInnis, Gretzky said. But Lemieux was an easy choice once he decided to make a comeback.

``Pretty much a slam dunk when he got his first point in 20 seconds,'' Gretzky said. ``That made it pretty simple. It was pretty unanimous. He's an elite player _ a level of playing that is absolutely incredible.

``Obviously, everyone is concerned about his health. We hope he is 100 percent come next year. Those are some things that we can't control, those are out of our hands. But the Olympics is a great deal of pressure and I just felt there was no one better between Mario and Steve Yzerman to really take a lot of pressure off our leaders and deflect that and allow our guys just to go and play the game.''

Gretzky, making the announcement at his downtown Toronto restaurant, previously said he would not include goaltenders on his preliminary list.

The players named Friday are almost all veterans. Gretzky said he wanted to shield some of the younger players from the spotlight. And he said team officials thought the eight players named deserved the honor of being the first choices.

Gretzky said he talked to Eric Lindros, who captained the team at the 1998 Nagano Games, before making the announcement.

``Obviously, a player of that ability is only going to help our hockey club,'' Gretzky said. ``But we also felt at this time with him not playing, that in fairness to Eric and in fairness to the rest of the players, it did not make a lot of sense to name him at this time.

If Lindros was playing by October, he would most likely be part of the team, Gretzky said. But if he isn't, Gretzky said that would clearly affect his status.

Canada and the five other countries with automatic Olympic berths _ Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States and the Czech Republic _ have until Sunday to name eight to 12 players to their teams for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Canada, with Gretzky, finished fourth at the 1998 Olympics. They were beaten by Dominik Hasek and the Czech Republic in a semifinal shootout. Canada lost 3-2 to Finland in the bronze-medal game.

Blake, Pronger and Yzerman were part of the 1998 team. Kariya and Sakic were injured and Lemieux was out of hockey.