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Wednesday, December 25, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Thunderbirds

Laich is playing with pride

Special to The Seattle Times

The new toys were neglected for a while.

Seattle Thunderbird Brooks Laich remembers rolling out of bed as early as 4 or 5 a.m. the day after Christmas — Boxing Day in Canadian lingo — to flip on the television and watch the International Ice Hockey Federation's World Junior Championship.

Day hadn't dawned yet on the small Saskatchewan town of Wawota, but Laich, his younger brother, Jordan, and their father, Harold, were bathed in the soft glow of Christmas-tree lights and the TV screen showing Canada's brightest and best hockey players under age 20 skating an ocean away, skating their hearts out for the Maple Leaf.

It wasn't just the hockey — it was the romance of hockey. It was the splendor of the Olympics combined with the pageantry of the long-running Eaton's Thanksgiving Day parade, the emotional fireworks of Canada Day and the steeliness of a Stanley Cup game.

Grace and grit, passion and pride, skill and suspense still are the magnets that pull sleepy Canadians out of their cozy beds on Boxing Day from Vancouver Island to the Maritimes, in the mountains and across the prairies. The World Junior Championships either can make the oatmeal and maple syrup taste heavenly or turn breakfasts cold. It depends how the boys in red and white are faring against their eight European foes or the U.S. elite-hockey wannabes.

This year, Canadians can sleep in a bit. The tournament — tomorrow through Jan. 5 — is in Halifax and Sydney, Nova Scotia, and the games will be broadcast nationwide to a prime-time audience.

Lenna Wilson, the former librarian at Wawota High School who has followed Brooks Laich's career, will be among those staring at their TV sets. So will all the young children who have played shinny in the street with Laich or gotten a brief lesson from him at the Wawota rink.

But Harold and Jane Laich won't turn on their TV. They will be in the stands with Jordan, 17, and daughter Jodi, 21, watching Brooks on the international stage.

The 19-year-old T-birds center has been in the spotlight before. He was the Ottawa Senators' fifth-round NHL draft pick in 2001. He and defenseman Tomas Mojzis were at the center of public outrage in Moose Jaw when they were traded last season for one defenseman who left the club (Craig Olynick) and one who never showed up in North America (Stas Avksentiev).

Laich also played in the Hershey Cup All-Star Series and helped the Western Hockey League's West squad to a victory. And he helped his hometown raise $17,500 for its first-ever Zamboni that was due in Wawota by Christmas Day to replace the trusty-but-tired town tractor.

This is far different. He is representing Canada, keeper of hockey's heritage.

"Ever since I was born, we followed this tournament," Laich said. "It's always been a tradition. The people of Canada live and breathe this tournament. For a junior hockey player, it's the highest honor you can have, to put the Maple Leaf on your chest and wear the red and white."

Laich has been playing left wing on a line with Pierre-Marc Bouchard, on loan from the NHL's Minnesota Wild, and Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau. The pair of Pierres were teammates last season with the Quebec Major-Junior Hockey League's Chicoutimi Sagueneens and in their early teenage days in midget hockey.

When Coach Marc Habscheid headed the WHL West team in the Nov. 19 Hershey Cup, he followed his hunch about keeping players together who were familiar and comfortable with each other. The result was a 7-5 victory. Now Habscheid, still toying with line combinations, is depending on Laich to adapt to his linemates' rhythm.

The coach, who has seen Laich from behind the opposing Kelowna Rockets bench, has been impressed with Laich's well-rounded game.

Habscheid has indicated he plans to roll four lines and blitz the opponents with short, fast-paced shifts.

"I tried playing a complete game," Laich said of his approach to selection camp. "But I felt like I was using my speed to my advantage. Our system is designed to take away time and space from the opponent."

Scoring two goals in each of the two exhibition games before the final roster cuts didn't hurt him, either. Neither did his all-too-familiar penalty-killing role, which he has polished with the T-birds.

Laich never complained about that role. His father said the trade to Seattle was the best break of his major-junior career. The T-birds scoring leader said the freedom Seattle Coach Dean Chynoweth has given him to showcase his talent, help the team and plead his case for a pro contract by June 1, has inspired his play to this level.

If Laich can help bring Canada its first WJC title since 1997, the whole experience will be a lyrical, lifelong memory. One every young Canadian hockey player fantasizes about when he bounds out of bed in the moonlight of Boxing Day morning.

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