Team Canada began a four-day mini-camp in Calgary as the first step to preparing for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Some 46 players have been invited to the camp, a number which is exactly two teams’ worth of players.
That means for every player who makes the team, another will be cut. Of course, names will be shifted around in the coming months and an injury or two will likely alter the roster picture as well, but the bottom line is that many top players will be watching the Olympics from home instead of playing, causing a deep wound to their egos and to their pride and ambition.
But general manager Steve Yzerman is only too keenly aware of the pain, embarrassment, and upset at being cut. He was released from both the 1987 and 1991 Team Canada rosters for the Canada Cup tournaments. Looking back at his hall of fame career, it seems inconceivable that he didn’t play in those events when he was ready, willing, and able.
When Canada held camp for the 1987 Canada Cup, coach Mike Keenan couldn’t find a spot for the Detroit captain who was coming off a career best 90-point season and was one of the best young centres in the game. Of course, Canada won the series in arguably the greatest three international games ever played, a dramatic finals against arch-rivals from the Soviet Union.
More incredible was Yzerman’s release from the 1991 roster. Coach Mike Keenan was back, and again he couldn’t find a place on the roster for Stevie Y even though the Red Wings captain had put together a string of four straight seasons of at least 50 goals and 100 points since the previous Canada Cup. Only Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky had better offensive numbers and neither could be said to be better defensively. Of course, such was Canada’s depth again that the team was able to cut Yzerman and still win the tournament.
Needless to say, the history of hockey is loaded with controversial cuts or non-invitations to various top players, but certainly Yzerman’s shocking departure from those 1987 and ’91 teams rank right up there among the most incredible. But it also serves to point out that even the very best are not assured of a place on any team.
Which brings us back to Canada 2009. Any of these 46 players (45, actually, as Ryan Getzlaf is recovering from surgery and won’t participate) can make the team—and just about any can be cut. For most of these star NHLers, being cut is something none of them have ever experienced, but there are no players on this summer camp who are coming off four straight 100-point seasons as was Yzerman in 1991, so nothing can be taken for granted.
For a player, being cut is more about being humbled than being told he isn’t good enough. All the players ARE good enough—that isn’t the issue. It’s about balance and teamwork, about being given a role and happily accepting it, about playing for the team and country, not goals and assists. Some players do this better than others, and some coaches simply favour one kind of player over another. For some players, a spot on the team is virtually guaranteed (think Crosby, Iginla, Brodeur); for many others, some luck is going to be required (as well as a strong start to the 2009-10 NHL season).
The bottom line is that Canada can name only 20 players and three goalies to the team. Not everyone in camp will make it; not everyone will have a good start to the season. It will be up to Yzerman and the coaching staff to whittle the large preliminary roster down to 23, a tough job to say the least. But at the end of the day, the players can’t complain about Yzerman’s decisions. One of the greatest players of all time knows only too well the feeling.