Straight Talk with Steve Tambellini

Originally published in summer 2004

By Lucas Aykroyd

It seems like Steve Tambellini is connected to everything happening in the world of Canadian hockey lately.

As the GM of Canada’s 2003 World Championship gold medal team, Tambellini carried on a great family tradition: his father Addie played for the 1961 Trail Smoke Eaters, the last Canadian amateur squad to win the annual IIHF tournament.

And in addition to serving as vice president and assistant general manager of the Vancouver Canucks, the 46-year-old former NHLer is also a key member of Canada’s 2004 World Cup braintrust with Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Lowe. He’s reprising his role from the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, where Canada earned its first Olympic hockey gold since 1952.

With the World Cup looming, Tambellini is determined to maintain Canada’s current hot streak in international hockey. But he concedes it was difficult to pick the roster, with debates raging over the exclusion of stars like Todd Bertuzzi and Vincent Lecavalier.

“If you compare this group to the team we selected for Salt Lake, I’d say there were more people pushing for jobs than in 2002. Here, you could talk about another three goaltenders and four or five defensemen. You could add another two forward lines. In Canada, as Wayne says, it’s always about the guys you don’t take. Depth is obviously one of Canada’s strong suits.”

Most hockey observers believe Canada has the strongest team on paper, and the Maple Leaf men will be motivated to reclaim the World Cup after losing to the USA in 1996. Yet Tambellini cautions: “Any time you get in a situation where it’s best-on-best, the line between winning and losing is so fine. You just have to look back at the last Olympics. A lot of teams could have won. The Swedes and Americans were outstanding, and the Russians were so explosive. I think every World Cup game is going to be a battle to the last minute.”

That was certainly the case at the 2004 IIHF World Championships, where Canada earned the gold with three narrow wins over Finland, Slovakia and Sweden. Although Tambellini didn’t attend this year’s tournament in Prague, he had an insider’s understanding of what Team Canada experienced. He was impressed by the flourishing of such young talents as Dany Heatley, Jay Bouwmeester, and Eric Brewer.

It didn’t hurt either to see two of his Canuck stalwarts, Brendan Morrison and Matt Cooke, coming home with gold medals around their necks. “To me, the common denominator was the character that’s bred into Canadian hockey players who go over for the tournament,” says Tambellini.

Tambellini believes domestic interest in the IIHF World Championships will surge when the tournament is staged in Quebec City and Halifax in 2008. “The profile, and rightfully so, has been building over the last few years,” he says. “Canada’s best players are so excited about committing to the tournament and representing our country. It’s going to be a huge event for the Canadian fans to see it in their own backyard.”

Tambellini also takes a personal interest in next year’s World Championships, which will be held in Austria. After a 310-point, 553-game NHL career, this wily forward played his last pro season at age 31 with Villach of the Austrian League. “The reason I ended up in Austria was that my father was one of the first notable Canadian players to go and coach over there with Klagenfurt,” Tambellini explains. “I lived there on and off for three or four years as a young boy, when I was still learning to skate. My family still has great friends in Austria.”

Another city where Tambellini played was Calgary, as he logged more than 120 games with the Flames in the mid-80’s. As a Canucks executive today, was he disgruntled about Calgary’s improbable run to the 2004 Stanley Cup finals? Hardly. “To see what’s happened now, I couldn’t be more proud as a guy that got to play there. That’s not only for the organization, but also for what a great sports city that is. I’m very happy for them.”

He’s diplomatic when discussing the recent changes in Vancouver’s NHL front office. “[Former GM] Brian Burke did great things here, and I know he’ll land on his feet with another NHL team if he wants that. As far as Dave Nonis and I now working together, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. We both care about this team a great deal, and we believe we’ve got a strong nucleus of players here and a great coaching staff. We have a chance to get to that next level.” He remains optimistic that a new collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players association will be reached in order to save the 2004-05 NHL season.

If recent history is any guide, don’t bet against Steve Tambellini. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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