In March of 2012, Steve Yzerman was appointed executive director of the Canadian men’s national hockey team through the end of the 2013-14 season.
He will again be in charge of assembling the Olympic team for competition in Sochi, Russia, where Canada defend the gold medal it won in 2010 in Vancouver.
Officially, the NHL hasn’t determined whether it will compete in Sochi, but Hockey Canada is operating on the assumption it will go once concessions relating to access are settled.
If so, it will fall to Yzerman and his management team – NHL general managers Doug Armstrong (St. Louis Blues), Ken Holland (Detroit Red Wings) and Kevin Lowe (Edmonton Oilers), plus Hockey Canada representatives Bob Nicholson and Brad Pascall – to oversee operations heading into Sochi.
The 47-year-old Yzerman, GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, will be the point man. With a year to go until Sochi, Yzerman answered questions about the challenge that lay ahead:
Q: Notwithstanding that the NHL hasn’t officially committed to Olympic participation, where do things stand?
A:Last fall, during the lockout, we had the time to get organized and put together a long list of players, a watch list if you want to call it that. Now that the season is under way, we’re keeping an eye on the players and making notes. We’ll circle back at some point at the midway point of the regular season and re-evaluate and work toward an invite list for a camp this summer, if and when a decision is made that the players are officially going.
Q:One of the changes, from Vancouver to Sochi, is the competition will be played on the larger, international-sized ice surface. In Turin , Canada’s players found it difficult to adapt to the big ice. Will that question – how will players adapt to the big ice – be a factor in the evaluation process?
A:It is a factor. You don’t want to just pick guys because they can skate fast, because they have to be able to think, too, but mobility will come into play. I’ve played a lot on big ice surfaces and watched it a lot since my involvement with Hockey Canada. No question, it’s a different game on the big rink, and skating is an issue.
Q: There was a tremendous amount of pressure on Canada in 2010 because the Olympics were played at home. How did you manage to handle it all?
A:The pressure is different for me and the management team of Hockey Canada than for the actual players. That hometown atmosphere in Vancouver, where you notice it is when you step on the ice. It’s just like in the [NHL] playoffs. In a playoff series, in a Game 7, you always say you want to play at home, but every time the other team gets a scoring chance, you also hear the reaction of the crowd. There’s tension in the building, and the players sense that. You can’t help but sense that. So it works great in your favour if things are going well, but if you get off to a bad start in a big game, everybody in the building, including the 20,000 fans, tightens up. It’s human nature. For players, there’s good and bad to being at home.
Q: In the four previous Olympics, Canada won the gold medal twice, and Sweden and the Czech Republic once each. Given Russia’s hockey heritage, there must be a tremendous amount of pressure on them to deliver a gold medal at home?
A:For the Russians being on home ice, that is the challenge – to overcome the jitters and contain the emotion and manage your energy throughout the course of the entire tournament, not just a period or a game. For us, regardless of where the event was – Vancouver, Salt Lake, Nagano or Turin – leading up to it, I saw all the attention and scrutiny that goes along with being part of the Olympic team as a great, exciting thing. Once we got to Vancouver, we noticed it everywhere. But as the management team, it doesn’t really change what we do. We make our decisions. Once we get to the tournament, it’s really up to the players and the coaches. We’re just there for support.
Q: Everybody likes to play GM and assist you with your team selections. Occasionally, you hear complaints about the Canadian development system, but when you analyze the options at your disposal, it’s a pretty deep talent pool, wouldn’t you say?
A:Sometimes, I think we judge Canadian hockey on the basis of the world junior championship – did we win or didn’t we win? – and in the last four world juniors, we haven’t won. But the evidence is there – Canada is still developing really good players and will continue to do so. The reality is, other countries are getting better and they’re doing a great job of developing, too. Look at Sweden. It’s such a relatively smaller country doing maybe the best job of any country in the world. We’re going to have to choose from among many elite players – and some players will be left off that will cause a controversy or allow for questions about what we’re doing. That comes with the territory. The only way we’re right is if we win, and we understand that.