Down with Spengler

GENE PEREIRA, Special to the Examiner

Blaine Down has his hands full these days and he's loving it.

The former Barrie Colts centre is in the middle of his fourth season in the Swiss 'A' League with the ZSC Zurich Lions and is about to represent Canada for the third straight year at the storied Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland starting on Boxing Day.

Oh yeah, and there's that little bundle of joy who entered his life five months ago named Caden.

"Five months and it's a lot of work," said the 29-year-old Whitby native, with a chuckle. "Now it's hockey and the baby."

Sleep can be in short supply, especially with Caden just recently returning to Switzerland from a trip home with his mom, Jen, to visit the grandparents and family in Whitby.

With the time change - Canada is six hours behind - it's easier going home to Canada, but coming back to Switzerland has messed up the little guy's sleep.

"I've got a few other things

on the plate with this kid, that's for sure," Down added with, a hearty laugh.

Another huge thing on Down's plate is the Spengler Cup. He says he's anxious to get the tournament going since it provides him with the opportunity to pull on a Canadian jersey.

"It's a great honour," said Down, who found out he was going to play back in mid-November, although Canada only recently announced its roster. "I never got to play for the world juniors or anything like that. Any time you get a chance to wear a Team Canada jersey, it's an honour.

"It's such a great event that Hockey Canada puts on over Christmas. They treat the families so well, and that's the No. 1 thing, making sure the family is taken care of and that's what's so great about Hockey Canada. It's really a neat tournament to be a part of."

Eight players, including Down, will return from last year's Canadian squad that won the silver medal. Down will be joined on the team by Ontario Hockey League graduates Ryan Parent and Rico Fata, while Barrie native Doug Shedden is an assistant coach on head coach Marc Crawford's staff.

Down, who led the Colts to an OHL championship and berth in the Memorial Cup final back in 1999-2000 as a rookie and then took them back to the OHL finals in 2001-02, is known for his offensive abilities, but he usually plays a different role with Canada at the Spengler Cup.

"I'm sure there's a lot of highly skilled guys here in the Swiss 'A' League, a lot of former NHL guys that are usually your go-to guys," he said. "I've been known to play more of a checking role, but any time you get the chance to put on that Canada jersey you'll play any role it takes to win because that's what Hockey Canada is all about."

After coming up just short last season and losing 4-3 in the finals to Russia's SKA St. Petersburg, Down is determined to come home with nothing but gold this year.

After all, nothing but winning it all is expected for Canadian hockey teams on the world stage.

"Yeah, you want to win. You wear that Canada jersey with pride and any time you play another team from another country, you know you're representing Canada and that's what we're about. We're about winning, so you definitely go in there with a winning attitude, that's for sure," he said.

After racking up 77 goals and 173 points in three years from 1999 to 2002 with the Colts, Down inked a pro contract with the New York Islanders. He spent three seasons in the Islanders organization with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League, before heading off to Europe.

After a year in Italy and another playing in Denmark, he came to Switzerland and found a home away from home with Zurich.

"Switzerland is an amazing country," said Down, who is hoping to renew his contract at the end of this season. "The quality of living is awesome and the hockey is great. It's become home here."

Many Canadians have played overseas in Europe, including former teammates such as Erik Reitz. Down has even played a season in Zurich with former NHL star Owen Nolan.

"I just worked my way up," he added. "I just continued to work hard and wanted to get to the highest level and the Swiss 'A' League is a pretty competitive level. It's a real good level of hockey and I just continued to grow as a player and ended up here in a good situation."

He still keeps in touch with former teammates like Reitz and Aaron Power, and still visits his old billet family every summer, Sharon and Tim Algar along with their sons Ryan and Andy.

While his dad is a current season ticket holder with the Oshawa Generals, Down says he also keeps tabs on how his old junior club in Barrie is doing.

Right now, though, Down's focus is on helping Canada win that gold at the oldest known pro hockey tournament.

"We've got two games left with the club team and then off to Team Canada," he said. "I've been there two years and last year we lost in the finals, so it would be nice to add a championship with Canada at the Spengler Cup to the resume, that's for sure."

Canada opens the tournament against HC Vitkovice Steel, of the Czech Republic, on Monday. Game time is 2:15 p.m.

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