CALGARY – Memo to the 45 players who have assembled in Calgary this week for Canada’s national men’s team orientation camp: you best have a good combination of the three – speed, agility and hockey sense – in order to crack the final squad that will compete at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
Mike Babcock, Canada’s head coach, figures it’s pretty cut and dried on what’s needed to play for Canada as the country attempts to defend the gold medal it won in 2010 in Vancouver.
“The guys who are playing the best (during the NHL season) will be on the team. Guys who can skate, the guys that take care of the puck, the guys that play 200 feet... are going to play for us,” said Babcock.
Hockey Canada has brought together 45 Olympic hopefuls, the team’s management group and coaching staff to Calgary – site of Hockey Canada’s head office – for a three-day orientation camp that ends today.
Much of the talk during the early going of camp focused on what kind of team Hockey Canada wants to send to Russia in February 2014. Of the 45 players in Calgary this week are 15 players who helped Canada win gold in Vancouver in 2010.
Canada also won gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics but has not fared well when the tournament has been played on the larger international ice surface.
Canada finished seventh in 2006 (Turin) and fourth in 1998 (Nagano), which was the first year that NHL players competed at the Olympics.
Steve Yzerman, executive director of Canada’s national men’s team, played for Canada at the 1998 Games in Nagano and has seen first-hand the challenges that come with the international game.
“There’s a lot of space out there and you can take yourself out of the play by being aggressive. You have to be really smart as a forward and know how your team is going to forecheck because you can spend a lot of time skating to places and getting there a second late and taking yourself out of the play,” said Yzerman.
“I go back to 1998 in Nagano, playing the Czech team (in a tournament quarter-final that Canada eventually lost in a shootout). It was hard to get shots through. Their defence backed up to net, they gave you the outside, they let you cycle in the corners. That’s been an adjustment for us.”
Yzerman won gold for Canada as a player in 2002 and was in the executive director role in 2010 in Vancouver.
“When I look at the 2010 group, there’s a natural turnover of some players being retired that will force us to bring in some new faces,” said Yzerman. “We’re not just going to take the 14 fastest forwards and the eight fastest defencemen. Hockey sense is probably the most important aspect a guy can have, particularly playing at a really high level. You’re playing with good players around you. The guys that don’t have the hockey sense... it really stands out.”
Yzerman, Babcock and the rest of the management and coaching staff use the three-day orientation camp to teach players on the systems, concepts and terminology that Canada will want to use in Russia. However, the staff has to spend the majority of the three days instructing players in meeting rooms as, due to soaring insurance costs, Hockey Canada has decided against putting the players on the ice.
In August 2009, Hockey Canada held a similar orientation camp in Calgary but the players had the chance to skate a few times, culminating with a red and white scrimmage.
Babcock and Yzerman both agree that, ideally, they would have the players on the ice. That said, they feel there is still the chance to accomplish a lot during the off-ice orientation camp. Babcock and his staff will hold a pair of walkthroughs – a term widely-used in American-style football – to instruct players on certain systems.
“It’s three things,” explained Babcock about the importance of the orientation camp.
“You get to know one another... That’s a priority. Number 2 is to understand how we’re going to play, the details, the spacing on the ice, how big it is, where you’re supposed to be, understanding the terminology and what’s going on. The third thing for me is that being an Olympian is much bigger than just being part of a regular hockey team. You’re part of a bigger team – the Canadian team.”
Hockey Canada’s management group, led by Yzerman, will use the first three months of the National Hockey League season to evaluate the 45 players, plus others, who have a chance to make the final Olympic team.
A major challenge for Canada – and all other nations – will be to find a group of players that is able to come together and play at a high level quickly. Canada expects to only have two to three practices prior to their first game on Feb. 13 against Norway.
While much of the talk amongst coaches and the management team (at least, with the media) focused on the larger ice surface, two of Canada’s stars from 2010 – Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash – said hockey is hockey, whether it’s played on an NHL or international ice surface.
“I don’t think a lot changes. The space out there but, other than that, I don’t think it changes a whole lot,” said Crosby. “If anything, you have a little bit more time to make decisions, things are typically a little bit slower. But, for the most part, you don’t try to change too much.”
Added Nash: “I like the big ice. I find it’s not too much of a difference. Like Sid said, it’s just small things. There are different angles, it’s a bit more skating, you can drift to the outside a little bit more if you’re not careful. I have played a lot on the big ice and I enjoy it.”