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Players show loyalty to Hockey Canada in wake of Olympic flap

TORONTO - While officials debate what jersey Team Canada will wear at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, it's clear that player loyalty to the Hockey Canada Maple Leaf logo in question runs deep.

"Simply put, a lot of us wore that jersey, wore that logo - we won a gold medal in that jersey," said Steve Yzerman, executive director of the 2010 men's team. "It does have some special significance to us."

"It signifies our pride and our tradition and our history," said women's coach Mel Davidson.

While it may not be a surprise that hockey still touches a chord in this country, who would have guessed that a simple logo held so much value?

That in itself should be considered a victory for Hockey Canada.

It wasn't all that long ago that Canadian hockey teams were sent to international competitions with all kinds of different emblems. That changed in the mid-90s when Hockey Canada adopted its current logo and started putting it on all national team jerseys.

"I think it's helped give players recognition of who they're playing for," said Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson. "Before that time, we used to wear different logos and the general public didn't know who was playing. Now they know when they see that logo on the ice that it's Team Canada."

Ironically, the Olympics played a big part in creating that awareness - both for fans and the players themselves.

Ever since NHLers started participating in the Games in 1998, Hockey Canada has grown exponentially. The organization has done a great job of marketing itself while undoubtedly being helped by the increased exposure it's received as the caretaker of the Olympic hockey teams.

Hockey Canada has also clearly left a mark on the athletes it's worked with at all levels, judging by the reaction many had to news that the organization's logo can't be used at the 2010 Games.

"It's kind of a downer," said Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price. "I mean, how long has that logo been around for? It is the face of the Hockey Canada program. It's kind of tough to learn that it's not going to be used in the Olympics. It's kind of outlandish, but what can you do?

"There's a lot of history behind that logo. It's been the face of Hockey Canada. It's almost like we could put it on our flag. It's that big a deal, and it's a real disappointment that we won't see it at the Olympics."

It's too early to speculate what the 2010 jerseys will look like.

Hockey Canada will be responsible for submitting a design to the Canadian Olympic Committee, which will then pass it on to the IOC for approval.

That's the same process the summer federations had to go through with their uniforms before the recent Beijing Games. Baseball Canada, for example, ended up with a logo similar to its own - although the organization had to go through a few revisions before getting final approval.

The COC signed a form that allowed Hockey Canada to use its logo at the past three Winter Olympics but decided last weekend that it wouldn't do so again for 2010.

Part of the reason is the fact that the Olympic Charter directly states that federation logos aren't permitted on uniforms and the IOC seems intent on enforcing the rules now. However, the potential for the COC to eventually earn some revenue through jersey sales can't be totally overlooked.

Up until this point, Hockey Canada has collected all the money from Olympic hockey jersey sales. While the COC notes that it doesn't want to hurt any of its sport federations financially, it does acknowledge that it might lay claim to some jersey revenue beyond 2010 - when the joint marketing agreement with the Vancouver organizing committee expires.

"In the post-2010 era, we would sit down with our colleagues at Hockey Canada and try to come up with something that would recognize the unique place of hockey in Canadian culture and sport," said David Bedford, the COC's executive director of marketing and communications. "There is certainly a revenue opportunity there and we would definitely negotiate that with our partners at Hockey Canada."

Hockey Canada and the COC had been discussing the issue privately before it came to a head last weekend. It's bound to resurface again in the leadup to Vancouver.

As Yzerman and Wayne Gretzky both noted in recent days, the logo has become especially symbolic to players who grew up with it.

For Eric Staal, seeing his name on a Canadian jersey at the world under-18 championship in 2002 meant that he was getting closer to achieving his dream of playing in the NHL.

"I still remember putting it on the first time and seeing that logo and knowing that I was one of the elite players of that age in the country," said Staal, now a forward with the Carolina Hurricanes. "It's something I'll remember forever."

The national women's team is currently playing the Four Nations tournament in Lake Placid, N.Y., and held a brief meeting to discuss the loss of the logo.

They're still wearing it this week but are disappointed that it won't be allowed in Vancouver, where they'll be going for a third straight gold medal.

"As far as I can remember, this was the Team Canada logo," said goaltender Charline Labonte. "It's kind of sad thinking that we're going to be in our own country for the Olympics and we might not be able to wear it.

"I guess it's not something that we can really control, it's just a sad story right now."

Someone like Gretzky has experienced a couple different versions of history. The Great One wore many different national team jerseys during his playing days but has developed a strong tie to Hockey Canada since retiring in 1999.

Ultimately, he believes the players will adjust to the changes that are made.

"At the end of the day Team Canada is Team Canada," said Gretzky. "Those guys, whatever logo they put on, the players will play the same way and fans will still back them the same way.

"We always talked about you play for the crest on the front, not the name on the back."

-

-With files from Canadian Press sportswriters Donna Spencer, Bill Beacon and Jim Morris.

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