Coach Simpson enters second straight Spengler Cup with heavy heart

The Canadian Press
By: The Canadian Press
Dec 23, 2008
The Hockey News

Coach Simpson enters second straight Spengler Cup with heavy heart

The Canadian Press
By: The Canadian Press
Dec 23, 2008

As far as team mottos or inspirational messages go, this one couldn't be much simpler: ``For Jim.''

However, there is nothing simple about the emotions those words will stir for the men that represent Canada at this year's Spengler Cup. They'll be competing for more than just their country over the Christmas holidays - they'll also be playing in honour of Jim Koleff, who died last month of cancer at age 55.

Koleff was Canada's assistant coach at the Spengler Cup the past two years - winning the trophy last December - and a longtime player, coach and GM in the Swiss League. The Hamilton native had cancer for the final 17 years of his life.

Canadian coach Sean Simpson thought it was important to honour Koleff's memory by dedicating the team's performance to him.

``He had 100 chemotherapy (sessions) in his battle against cancer,'' Simpson said during a recent interview. ``He just really showed an unbelievable will to live.

``If the team shows half the courage that Jimmy showed in his battle, I'm sure we'll have a great chance to win again.''

Canada opens the prestigious club team tournament on Boxing Day with a game against Czech squad HC Karlovy Vary in Davos, Switzerland. The other squads in the event are host HC Davos, Russia's Dynamo Moscow and Germany's ERC Ingolstadt.

Each team plays one another in a round-robin format before the top two contest the final on New Year's Eve. Canada has appeared in the championship game seven times during the past eight tournaments, winning in 2002 and 2003 as well as last year.

This year's Canadian team is largely comprised of European-based pros and will compete with Koleff's initials ``JK'' on their sweaters and helmets. Most of the players knew Koleff personally; the few who didn't will certainly learn about him over the coming week.

``I'm going to make sure they know his story - when you have a motto for a team everyone has to understand why you have it,'' said Simpson. ``He fought (cancer) for 17 years, sometimes he was good and sometimes he battled it. I'd always phone him up to see how he was doing and he'd end up cheering me up.

``He was that type of guy, so positive.''

Canada will be represented by a veteran team that only has a handful of players who are younger than 30. There will be six guys returning from last year: Serge Aubin, Shawn Heins, Ric Jackman, Kirby Law, Domenic Pittis and J.P. Vigier.

The biggest challenge the Canadians face each year is having to come together quickly. The players won't start arriving in Davos until Wednesday and they'll be playing a game on Friday night.

By contrast, the teams they compete against spend the entire year together and usually add a couple guys for the tournament to strengthen their respective lineups.

Even still, it hasn't kept Canada from having success at the event. Simpson has been to several Spengler Cups over the years and has a theory on why that is.

``I think the desire and the pride just shines through,'' said Simpson. ``You can go in there and just say, look, `let's do this, this and this.' The guys are focused, they're motivated to play and they have pride in wearing the sweaters.

``They make the team thing work in a short time.''

Simpson will be joined behind the bench by two rookies at this event - assistants Russ Courtnall and Serge Pelletier.

That said, Courtnall is no stranger to international competition. He represented Canada at every major tournament during his playing career and relishes those experiences above all others.

His strong sense of patriotism goes back to the days when he and brother, Geoff, would watch ``Hockey Night in Canada'' with their father while growing up in Duncan, B.C.

``When they sang the national anthem, my dad would make us stand up,'' said Courtnall. ``Our family is very patriotic. When I got to go the world juniors, the Olympics, play for Team Canada in '91, go over to the world championships, for me it was just the ultimate.

``It really chokes me in the past when I've seen players turn those opportunities down. To me, your country means so much more than just the sport.''

It doesn't sound like there will be any shortage of emotions in the Canadian camp at the Spengler Cup.

Simpson expects to have Koleff on his mind throughout a tournament where the two have worked together in the past. It could make for some tough moments.

``It's going to be different without him there this year,'' said Simpson. ``We were really close friends. It's going to be difficult at times up there without him.

``We're going to miss him for sure.''

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Coach Simpson enters second straight Spengler Cup with heavy heart