Steve Yzerman is watching closely.
The 2014 Olympics might still be almost two years away, but it’s currently front of mind for the man in charge of assembling Team Canada. Yzerman and his entire management staff for the Games in Sochi, Russia, have made the trip to the IIHF World Hockey Championship as part of their preparation.
“When we’re picking the Olympic team, we want to watch these guys,” he said Sunday.
A big part of the scouting process is focused on how players handle the larger international ice surface.
The 2010 Olympics in Vancouver were won on the NHL-sized sheet that North American players are accustomed to, but the tournament in Russia will be played to IIHF specifications, which is four metres wider. That extra space produces a different-looking game and tends to put a premium on speed and mobility.
“It’s an eye-opener for the players,” said Yzerman. “It’s just a different game and some players adapt better to it than others. ... The big thing is skating, you’ve got to be able to get around the ice. For defencemen, they’ve got to be able to move out there.”
There is still no deal in place to guarantee NHL players will compete in Sochi, but Hockey Canada is moving ahead under the assumption that they will. Yzerman was named executive director of the 2014 Olympic team in March and kept intact the management group that built the 2010 gold-medal winner in Vancouver: Ken Holland, Doug Armstrong and Kevin Lowe.
Lowe was also made the general manager for this world championship — a clear sign to players that there will be a strong link between the teams.
“It’s important for the guys who are really serious about the Olympics and want to be there,” said Yzerman. “Some guys, it can make a difference being here in this tournament.”
Canada is also in need of a strong finish to boost its world ranking. The country has slipped to fifth after consecutive quarter-final exits at the world championship and will see its position frozen after this tournament to determine everything from groupings to practice times and dressing room assignments in Sochi.
“This tournament’s important for us,” said Yzerman. “You hear about the world rankings, but it’s important for the (Olympics) — the way your schedule is set up and what not. We want to do well at this tournament.
“We’re trying to get a successful program going and we haven’t won a gold since 2007.”
Yzerman was the GM of that championship team in Moscow and also put together the group that won silver the following year in Quebec City and Halifax.
As much as anyone, he knows how tough the world championship is to win. He believes the biggest challenges facing Canadian teams is a lack of proper preparation time and the ever-improving quality of competition on the world stage.
“You put the team together quickly and somebody different wins it every year,” said Yzerman. “It’s a hard tournament, the other countries have just gotten better. It’s no longer just Russia, Canada, Finland, Sweden, U.S. — all these games are tough games.
“All the countries have improved and it makes it harder to win.”
The Canadian team currently sits atop the Helsinki group with a 5-0-1 record. It can clinch the top seed heading into the quarter-finals with a victory in its final round robin game against Belarus on Tuesday.
Yzerman has watched Canada play live here twice — a 5-3 win over Finland on Friday and 8-0 victory over Kazakhstan on Saturday — and caught a 3-2 decision over Switzerland on the Internet prior to travelling to Helsinki.
“I think they’re getting better,” said Yzerman. “In the Kazakhstan game yesterday — not a strong opponent — but they’re starting to look more comfortable on the ice and more cohesive.
“They’re getting better and better as the tournament goes.”