Ah, Labour Day – the true Canadian New Year.
The sun still burns, the lake’s ideal for swimming, the bugs are finally gone … so let’s turn back to hockey and slam the Zamboni door on summer.
It was still August when the utterly forgettable World Cup of Hockey got under way in 2004, and a season-long NHL lockout was announced but two days after Shane Doan scored the last goal of the tournament, giving Canada a 3-2 victory over Finland.
Let us trust in better memories this time.
There might never have been another World Cup but for factors that involve greed, control and fading NHL passion for Olympic hockey that will next be played in not-prime-time Pyeongchang, South Korea. If this third World Cup – the first was played in 1996 – goes well, many believe the league won’t be going to South Korea.
On Monday, Team Canada held its first World Cup practice at Canadian Tire Centre, home of the Ottawa Senators, of whom there is none on this team.
In fact, though it is often said you can learn nothing from a first practice, there was indeed something to be learned as the Canadian hopefuls hit the ice. And that is, had Shea Weber not been traded to the Montreal Canadiens over the summer, there would not be a single skater on Team Canada from a Canadian NHL team. There is a goaltender, Carey Price of the Canadiens, but the top-level scorers and defenders no longer live here.
The message is obvious: If you are an elite older player who can take control of your destiny, you almost certainly won’t be playing in Canada. Canadian NHL teams, on the other hand, will be well represented on the under-23 squad, composed of players not yet old enough or powerful enough to take over their futures.
That said, Canadian passports belong to all the players – from 37-year-old Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks to 24-year-old Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars – and to the five managers and seven coaches.
So many coaches, of course, raise the spectre of the effective-if-dull defensive hockey that brought Canada gold in Sochi two years ago, under current head coach Mike Babcock, rather than the exciting, more creative game that produced the NHL players’ first Olympic gold in Salt Lake City in 2002, when the late Pat Quinn was running the bench.
It was, in fact, that 2002 victory that inspired Steven Stamkos. He was 12 years old then, and the excitement he witnessed as the country celebrated the gold medal was “huge.”
For his first practice, the Tampa Bay star skated on a line with John Tavares (New York Islanders) and Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim), as well as working the point during power-play practice.
Sidney Crosby, the team captain who is also captain of the Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins, was with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, who are already teammates in Boston. Thornton was with Claude Giroux (Philadelphia) and Matt Duchene (Colorado). Seguin worked with Jonathan Toews (Chicago) and Logan Couture (San Jose). Corey Perry (Anaheim) was spotted in various places.
No “energy” line, no checking line – hopefully, none required.
It is on defence that there might be some concern, as puck-moving Duncan Keith (Chicago), a star in previous Olympic outings, is out with injury. The team is weakest on the left side, with Jake Muzzin (Los Angeles), Marc-Édouard Vlasic (San Jose) and Jay Bouwmeester (St. Louis) all left shots, and right-shot Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis) likely to be moved across to that position.
If Price, who hasn’t played in nine months, can regain the form that made him league MVP two seasons ago, goaltending will not be an issue. He is backed by Corey Crawford (Chicago) and Braden Holtby (Washington), both highly capable.
While Team USA opened its camp on the golf course, Team Canada was “all business,” as Babcock, who also serves as head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and his army of assistants put the players through two brisk workouts.
“Real fast and crisp,” Price said. “Just a real joy to be out there. I had a smile on my face all day. We’re getting right into the boiling pot here.”
Crosby was quick to caution anyone reading too much into early line combinations. “Things can change in a short period,” he said. “Usually, if they don’t, that’s a good thing.”
“They’re sure not set in stone anyway,” Babcock said. “Your lines in these tournaments are a work in progress.”
Babcock knows that his every move will be scrutinized. There has already been criticism about a roster that does not include the likes of P.K. Subban (Nashville) and Kris Letang (Pittsburgh), two of the most exciting defencemen in the game, but players likely to rely on instinct before instruction.
“The great thing about being in Canada,” Babcock said, “is you can second-guess all the players… but win – and they don’t ask questions.”Report Typo/Error