Canada starts Olympic process with plan for big ice
CALGARY -- This week's Canada Olympic orientation camp and the next four months of evaluations, discussions and debates for Steve Yzerman, Mike Babcock and their chief lieutenants will be geared toward one major theme: Don't make the same mistake twice.
Canada's goal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics is to bring home another gold medal, but that was exactly the goal it had in 2006 when the Canadians arrived in Turin, Italy. That team finished seventh in a 12-team tournament because it was partially catered toward the loyalty the management and coaching staff had to the 2002 gold-medal team and wasn't built to succeed on the bigger, international ice surface.
To repeat as Olympic champion in February, the group selecting the 2014 Canadian team and the one coaching it understands history and loyalty have to take a backseat to fit and style befitting the larger ice surface it will be playing on.
"We've got to pick the best group to play," Babcock said Sunday from the Markin MacPhail Centre at Canada Olympic Park, where the three-day, off-ice orientation camp is taking place, "and I don't think it has anything to do with 2010."
What happened on home ice in Vancouver is to forever be cherished, but the Canadians won that gold medal playing on a familiar 200-foot by 85-foot sheet of ice. The ice will be 15 feet wider and the markings different in Sochi, so they can't expect to win being as physical or aggressive as they were in 2010.
Canada's recent track record for changing its style to compete on the bigger ice leaves much to be desired. It hasn't won gold at the World Championship since 2007 and hasn't medaled since taking home the silver in 2009.
The Canadians won gold on the Olympic-sized ice sheet in Salt Lake City in 2002, but Ken Hitchcock, an associate coach for the Olympic team since 2002, said Sunday it wasn't a 200 x 100 sheet as advertised.
"Everybody talks about Salt Lake being a big-ice game but it wasn't," Hitchcock said. "It was a smaller surface. It wasn't near 100 by 200 that it was advertised. So, really, the only time was in Torino."
That team couldn't handle the pace. It's an experience that will guide this year's selection process.
"The biggest lesson is foot speed, for all players," said Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe, who has been part of Canada's Olympic management team since 2002. "You have to be able to skate and you have to be able to move the puck. We've seen that time and time again, in '06 and [at the] World Championship the last couple of years. It's quite evident. The team will be made up of players who can skate, think and move the puck.
"There could be a number of changes from the gold-medal team in Vancouver."
The process started in earnest Sunday when Hockey Canada gathered its executive team, coaching staff and 46 players (Claude Giroux was invited but couldn't make it because he is rehabbing from surgery on his finger) for an orientation camp geared toward educating the players on everything they'll need to know should they be among the 25 selected for the Olympic team sometime in late December.
Because the cost of insuring the players' NHL contracts (estimated at $1 million by Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson) was deemed prohibitive, the players will not skate but instead watch video and participate in walk-throughs to learn the systems and terminology Babcock and his assistants (Claude Julien, Lindy Ruff and Hitchcock) will use in Sochi.
They will be together for the full three days before departing Wednesday morning, so the hope is for them to form a bond, a chemistry that can easily be recaptured when they leave their respective NHL teams and get to Sochi, where they will have maybe three practices before opening the Olympics against Norway on Feb. 13.
"Being an Olympian to me is much bigger than just being part of a regular hockey team," Babcock said. "You're part of a bigger team: the Canadian team. That's not just the Canadian hockey team, that's the Canadian Olympic team. I think it's a special, special thing. When you get special opportunities, your preparation should be the same. Our preparation this week has to be gold-medal preparation."
From there it will be all about waiting and watching to see who stands out in the first three months of the NHL season. Babcock made it clear that nobody from the 2010 team will be given an advantage.
"That's over with," he said. "This is a new opportunity, and so some guys who played on that team are still on the top of their game. They're going to be on the next team. Some guys that were on that team didn't get invited to the camp and their career is not at that point. So once again, it's the best guys that are going to play on the team."
Fifteen players of the 46 players here played on the 2010 team, and some -- Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, Shea Weber, Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith -- are considered by many to be locks for the 2014 team. Nicholson told Sportsnet last week that as many as 11 players could have that status.
However, the expected turnover from 2010 to 2014 is evident by some of the younger players in camp, including Steven Stamkos, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, John Tavares and Matt Duchene. They all have significant skating speed.
Half of the 32 new gold-medal hopefuls invited to camp (Giroux included) are 25 or younger; 27 are under 30.
"We'll be a younger group," Babcock said.
And presumably a faster team than it was in 2010. At least they had better be if they want to avoid making the same mistake twice.
"Speed, agility, and if you don't have those, smarts are at a premium," Hitchcock said. "Those things are going to be critical. If you're not quick and agile, you're going to have to be a brilliant player to play this type of game."