Steve Yzerman was on to something Monday when he imagined every person in the country putting together a hockey team for the Sochi Winter Games.
The curiosity about Canada is that it’s not all that far-fetched. Most Canadians consider themselves at least as smart as the average NHL general manager, and most could put together a pretty good Olympic team.
Canada could ice about a half dozen highly competitive Olympic teams; no other country could even come close. The secret that executive director Yzerman and his fellow Team Canada evaluators have to uncover is what would be the single, right team to send to Sochi.
Altogether, 47 players have been invited to the late August camp in Calgary. All 47 are fine players and each, it could be argued, could be a fit on a Team Canada that challenges for the gold medal, providing the rest of the team has been properly constructed.
And this is where, from time to time, Canadian hockey thinkers run into trouble in assembling teams for international play. The parts are sometimes greater than the whole.
History and inclination say the best hockey teams in the world are those that win NHL championships. They combine skill and speed with strength and the ability to survive. There is, however, a profound difference between an international hockey gold medal and a drawn-out Stanley Cup playoff grind where you could be playing an equally fierce opponent seven times in one or more of the four required series.
An Olympic tournament lasts a couple of weeks and you might, but not necessarily, play one opponent twice, but even then usually so far away from the previous match that the players have largely forgotten who’s who on the other side.
In Canada’s worst showing since NHL players were released to play for their countries in Nagano in 1998 – a seventh-place finish in Turin in 2006 – the coaching staff insisted they would be playing “the NHL game” in Italy. They would do so regardless of the way other teams might like to play and without any serious thought to the larger ice surface that would be employed.
NHL minds love the cliché “We’re looking for 200-foot players,” suggesting they want players as adept in their own end of the ice as in the opposition end. They should consider “100-foot players” a bit more, to take into consideration the extra 15 feet of width they will run into in Sochi.
It may be no coincidence that the final in Vancouver 2010 was between the two “most NHL” countries, Canada and the United States, and that the game was played, for reasons never properly explained, on the smaller, NHL-size ice of (as it was then called) GM Place.
There is no way of ever knowing, but Canada might never have reached the final had the speedy, dogged Slovaks had a few more feet to work with, let alone a few more minutes to play.
NHL minds also believe you have to have an “energy” line that can check ferociously when the rivalry gets hottest. This might make sense in a hard-fought seven-game series. It makes next to none in a one-off game that decides who goes to the medal round and who does not.
Energy lines can change a game in Stanley Cup play; in Olympic play, they can also change a game – by taking dumb penalties.
Such thinking was rarely so absurdly displayed as in Ufa, Russia, last January, where the Team Canada world junior team placed Nathan MacKinnon on the fourth line, dedicated to checking and providing periodic bursts of energy. MacKinnon, a playmaker, looked at sea, yet went on to star in the Memorial Cup and was the No. 1 pick overall at the June entry draft.
The large ice surface is different, despite those who will argue endlessly that it is not. The game itself is different.
Ottawa Senators defenceman Marc Methot, perhaps a surprise name among the 47 called to camp, told the Ottawa Citizen Tuesday that he doubts he would have merited consideration had it not been for his play the past couple of years in the world championship.
“I think I turned a lot of heads,” Methot said. “I think a big reason is because of how I played on the big surface. A lot of it is about skating, and having my skating ability mixed in with the defensive game surely helped.”
It is also different for goaltenders, as Canada’s Patrick Roy noted in Nagano. Angles and distance change; the quick shot often becomes the pause, leaving reflex goalies at a shooter’s mercy. Canada has some fine goaltenders, but no Canadian goalie has stolen Olympic matches the way the Czech Republic’s Dominik Hasek did in Nagano.
There are good Canadian goaltenders and great Canadian skaters among the 47. The test of management will be to pick the right team; the test of coaching will be to use the team right.
Let us hope that the four NHL head coaches named – Mike Babcock, Lindy Ruff, Ken Hitchcock and Claude Julien – are willing to listen carefully to a fellow coach who doesn’t even have a real job. That would be Ralph Krueger, who previously coached in Germany, coached an Austrian team to the European championship, and coached Switzerland in Turin when his little team of no-names defeated mighty Team Canada 2-0 by using the extra ice to their advantage and relying on the calm goaltending of Martin Gerber.
A month ago, Krueger was fired as coach of the Edmonton Oilers. The NHL didn’t exactly work out. Now he’s working as a consultant for Hockey Canada and an adviser to the four coaches who will be behind the Canadian bench.
His advice could prove invaluable.