They rolled them out with machine-like efficiency in three groups, on the opening day of Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey orientation camp. First, there was Steve Yzerman and his management group, then Mike Babcock and his coaching staff and finally, Sidney Crosby and four other players who helped Canada win the gold medal in 2010 in Vancouver.
For a full hour, talk, talk, talk. No topic left uncovered. The challenges of playing hockey on the bigger European ice surface. What went wrong in Turin during the 2006 Olympics. What went right in Vancouver and Salt Lake City during the two Olympics that bookended the debacle in Italy. Russia’s anti-gay laws and what, if anything, can be done to put pressure on changing them and making sport more accessible to all.
Then there was the insurance problem, which is why the players won’t go on the ice to practise this week, but will have to content themselves with walk-throughs, strategy sessions and bonding events.
There will be a battle for the No. 1 goaltending job, which was mostly a given in the heyday of Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, but is now a wide-open competition.
Roberto Luongo was there, trying to talk Olympics, but he was constantly detoured into a discussion of his professional career, now that he is the starter again in Vancouver, after the Canucks unexpectedly traded away Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils last June at the NHL entry draft.
Luongo is one of the more interesting athletes on the professional sporting landscape – usually emotional, passionate, funny and open. In an era when most sentences that spill from the mouths of most players can be a bland recitation of benign facts and observations, Luongo is often extraordinarily candid.
On Sunday, however, Luongo – who thought his time in Vancouver was up after last season – was carefully neutral about almost every topic lobbed up.
Luongo wrote off last year – which he spent on the bench, mostly as Schneider’s highly paid backup – as “a learning experience” and said he hoped it made him “a better player and person.
“Right now, I just want to play hockey. That’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter where it is, I want to play hockey. I’m happy to be starting again and I want to focus on playing hockey and being ready.”
Twelve years ago, Canada’s Olympic hockey team convened in Calgary in preparation for the Salt Lake City Olympics and no practices were scheduled then, either.
But on that first day, Mario Lemieux took the lead, laced up his skates, and invited anyone to join him on the ice. Everybody did – and what followed was some of the most memorable hockey played before Christmas that year, in front of a small select crowd at Father David Bauer Arena.
This time around, no apparently does mean no.
Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson estimated the cumulative value of the contracts for the 46 players in attendance at $1.5-billion, making them too expensive to insure, even for just a few days. One player expected to crack the final Olympic roster, the Philadelphia Flyers’ Claude Giroux, isn’t here because of a finger injury that he suffered at a charity golf tournament earlier in August.
Crosby spoke about how many NHL team captains were invited to the camp, meaning the leadership role could be spread around the dressing room and might help mitigate against some of the pressure the players will be feeling in trying to defend the gold medal. Crosby called the 2010 hometown Olympics the most pressure he’d ever felt as a player and doesn’t think it can get any worse playing in Russia.
Although many of these players have been in multiple international competitions, Crosby has never actually gone to Russia to play. He heard stories about the legendary 1972 Summit Series from J.P. Parise, who was the director of hockey operations at his high school, Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, and said he was looking forward to going on the road for these Olympics.
“To be part of that will be very special,” Crosby said.
To win in Sochi, Canada will rely on players who can skate, so it would have been nice to assess every player at ice level as has been done in previous camps, rather than relying on scouting and video tape. But that doesn’t mean Canada will just select its 14 fastest forwards and eight fastest defencemen either, Yzerman said.
Canada did add former Edmonton Oilers coach Ralph Krueger, the former long-time head of the Swiss national team, to the coaching staff to help the team with its transition to the international style of play.
According to assistant coach Ken Hitchcock, who was part of the past three Canadian Olympic coaching staffs, there is an inherent trap or what he called a “sucker play” to playing hockey on the big ice.
“You have more space and time so the tendency is to take more time,” Hitchcock said. “To me, we play well as Canadians when we play fast defensively and fast offensively.”
“The reality is, this is a hard tournament to win,” Yzerman said. “Single-elimination tournaments, playing against other countries who are very, very good, who believe they’re as good as we are – and they’re starting to prove that. It’s hard to win the world junior tournament. It’s hard to win world championships. They’re all difficult.
“So we have to enjoy every time we can win and appreciate it, whether it’s a gold [medal] or a silver or whatnot, because we can’t stand here and guarantee we’re going to win every time we go to the Olympics.”