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Head coach Mike Babcock, from Saskatoon, Sask., gives instruction during a ball hockey training session at the Canadian national men's team orientation camp in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
Head coach Mike Babcock, from Saskatoon, Sask., gives instruction during a ball hockey training session at the Canadian national men's team orientation camp in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Babcock hopes ball hockey paves the way to Olympic gold Add to ...

In the spring, during the middle of their playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings’ coach Mike Babcock ran into his counterpart with the University of Michigan’s basketball program, Tom Izzo.

Mr. Babcock was trying to figure out how to run a summer orientation camp for the men’s Olympic hockey team without going on the ice because of the high cost of insuring $1.5-billion worth of NHL player contracts.

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Mr. Izzo told Mr. Babcock that whenever he took his teams to an NCAA tournament, they would often do a dry run in a hotel ballroom rather than go to the gym.

Mr. Babcock decided to borrow the idea for his Olympic camp this week. In addition to video work and the team-building exercises associated with these camps, Mr. Babcock also had his 45 players run drills in sneakers instead of skates, shorts and sticks in hand on a fibreglass floor instead of ice in what turned out to be two of the most scrutinized ball hockey games in history.

It was a sharp contrast to the orientation camp for the U.S. men’s Olympic team in Arlington, Va. The Americans did not skate for insurance reasons either, but stuck to more traditional teaching and team-building.

Mr. Babcock said that slowing down the action would help the players grasp the concepts of team play and strategy more easily than they might in a high-speed, on-ice session.

“Sometimes, the intensity of practice gets so high physically that it’s not as engaged mentally,” he explained. “Out here, you’re walking and you get to know the spacing.”

He is a firm believer in what he accomplished during the two days the players ran around the floor at MacPhail Markin Centre on the grounds of Canada Olympic Park in Calgary.

“I’m a school teacher by trade,” Mr. Babcock said, “so you go through all these different ways of teaching and they’ve got to grab on to something. They wouldn’t be in the National Hockey League if they didn’t learn one of these ways.

“I thought this was great. No one got killed. It wasn’t hard. No one got hurt. There was no wear and tear on the body. It was fun – and it was different.”

All the parties on the Canadian side – management staff, coaches, players – gave the approach a thumbs up, even though the idea of a “walk through” is not common in professional hockey.

“It was kind of a different, unconventional way of doing it, but I think we were able to benefit from it nonetheless,” said Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby. “There isn’t a ton of time once we get over there [to Sochi, Russia], so you have to make the most of the time we have here together and try to get a grasp of what the team wants.”

Spacing becomes an important concept because the angles change in the international game, in which the rink is 15 feet wider than the standard NHL arena dimensions (200 feet by 85). Generally speaking, the NHL game is played in closer quarters, meaning that players are on top of each other more quickly. There is more room along the boards in the international game, which sometimes slows it down.

“There is a lot to learn, but at the same time, it remains hockey,” Boston Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron said. “It comes down to being pretty simple at the end of the day,”

In preparation for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada ran a more traditional camp, which concluded with a full 60-minute scrimmage played at a virtually sold-out Saddledome. Insurance issues were a consideration then, but they pressed forward, and recouped some of the costs with the public game.

But in the past four years, many of the candidates for the Olympic team signed long-term professional contrasts that totaled about $1.5-billion cumulatively. Shea Weber’s 14-year contract is worth $110-million. Mr. Crosby’s 12-year contract is worth $104.4-million. Corey Perry’s eight-year deal is worth $69-million.

The insurance premium would have been around $1.2-million, too pricey for a non-profit such as Hockey Canada.

And while Canadian Olympic executive director Steve Yzerman said his preference would have been to go on the ice, no one in Hockey Canada was prepared to draw a straight line between the 2010 Olympic camp and the gold-medal victory that followed.

Mr. Bergeron was the only player who made the Olympic team four years ago after being passed over for the orientation camp, but he did not think his absence left him behind in any way.

“You just adjust quickly as a professional,” he said.

Because so many talented players attended the camp, most of the final roster decisions will be based on how well the players do in the first half of the NHL season.

“We’ve tried to explain it to each and every guy so when they leave here they’ve got three months to do their part,” Mr. Babcock said. “They’re in control of whether they go.

“If they left here without knowing what it would take, they weren’t listening.”

The primary Olympic medal contenders will draw players from the NHL, so they all face the same essential challenge – developing team play on the go without a traditional training camp. Mr. Yzerman estimated the team might get three practices in Sochi before its opening game, which he thought would be enough to get them started.

“Every team going into the Olympics is going in with the expectation of winning it,” Mr. Crosby said. “That’s the way we look at it as players, and really, you don’t want to have any mindset besides that.”

U.S. Olympic coach Dan Bylsma said he did not think the novel approach would give the Canadians an advantage.

When asked if his team has fallen behind Canada because it did not work in a ball-hockey practice, Mr. Bylsma laughed twice, according to ESPN, and quipped: “I think that means we’re marginally ahead.”

“I’m pretty sure our coaches accomplished every bit as much as Canada did without the visual,” added David Poile, general manager of the U.S. team.

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