By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Sidney Crosby will lead the Canadian men's Olympic ice hockey team at next month's Sochi Games where a roster made up of NHL players looks to defend the gold medal won four years ago.
Crosby, who scored the golden goal that capped off the 2010 Vancouver Games, is among 11 returning Olympians announced to a 25-man team that was being scrutinized on Canadian TV and radio stations and on social media since it was unveiled on Tuesday.
While some players like Crosby and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks were unanimous selections, others will be the subject of fiery debate in the hockey-obsessed nation right up to the opening faceoff in Sochi.
"We recognize the very difficult decisions we had to make," Team Canada General Manager Steve Yzerman, referring to the depth of talent he had to chose from, told a highly-anticipated news conference that was broadcast live on Canadian TV.
"The hockey world is getting more and more competitive. We won a gut-wrenching gold medal on home ice four years ago and the competition is even harder today.
"Our goal is to go to Sochi and come home with the gold medal but by no means do we consider that an easy task."
Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo, who was in net when Canada triumphed in 2010, looks to retain the starting role but will have to battle with newcomer Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens. Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes is Canada's third goaltender.
The defense will be anchored by Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Crosby, who leads the National Hockey League in scoring with 63 points in 44 games this season, will head a Canadian offense that boasts plenty of firepower.
Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos, who has not played since suffering a broken leg nearly two months ago, was included on the initial roster but the two-time NHL goal-scoring champion may not be fit to play.
The deadline for Olympic rosters was Tuesday but teams can still drop and add players because of injuries.
"If he's healthy he is one of the 25 best players obviously in Canada and should be on the team," said Yzerman. "We're not allowed to name 24 today and wait and see and name a 25th.
"He will have his eight week X-ray later this week, all I can tell you is his rehab and recovery are going well."
Canada's biggest strength will be down the middle with Crosby, Toews, Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks), John Tavares (New York Islanders) and Patrice Bergeron (Boston Bruins), the NHL's top faceoff man.
At the time of Tuesday's announcement, Crosby, Tavares and Getzlaf ranked first, third and fourth in NHL scoring
Chris Kunitz, Crosby's Pittsburgh wingman, who is tied for fourth in goal scoring with 23, also made the squad.
"The chance to be an Olympian, to represent our great nation and to be part of the bigger team is a special, special thing and we take the honor very seriously," said Mike Babcock, who returns as head coach for the second straight Olympics.
"We understand the opportunity is great and that means the preparation has to be equal and we won't let you down in that area I can assure you of that."
Canada, slotted into Group B along with Austria, Norway and Finland, opens defense of its Olympic title on February 13 against the Norwegians.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)