It was the beginning of the second day of Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey practice, and the head coach and the captain were making a couple of lazy circles around the ice, talking strategy.
Mike Babcock was so caught up in his conversation with centre Sidney Crosby he wasn’t even aware a stray puck went flying past his head, narrowly missing him.
Crosby wanted a point of order clarified in Babcock’s talk about defensive coverage and he made a point of seeking out the coach so they were on the same page.
“The idea is to get everybody comfortable,” Babcock said, “so we can play the game fast. When you’re thinking, you don’t go fast. So that was, I thought, a good part of the process. You want that from your captain. You want him to ask questions if there are any issues.”
Crosby is the captain here, inheriting the role the since-retired Scott Niedermayer had four years ago, and he seems to be slipping comfortably into a leadership position. Leadership styles tend to vary in the NHL, from the old-school intimidating Mark Messier approach to the quieter, more cerebral captains, who tend to pick and choose when to speak.
There was some talk about Crosby as a possible captain for the Vancouver Games in 2010, and even he will acknowledge he is better prepared this time around.
“Yeah, I think you’re much more used to things,” the Pittsburgh Penguins star said after Tuesday’s practice. “You’re a little wide-eyed that first time. Scotty didn’t really say that much, he just said the right thing at the right time. The way he carried himself and the whole demeanour he had, his quiet confidence, it was really something that was felt throughout the whole room.
“The other thing here is that we’ve got a lot of guys who have played together – not just the last Olympics, but going back a ways, so I think there’s some trust there. And for the new guys coming in, you try to make them feel as comfortable as possible.
“That’s the strength of Canada, guys always come together pretty quick. That’s instilled in us at an early age.”
According to assistant coach Ken Hitchcock, there is already a strong sense of purpose to the Canadian players on the 2014 team, which is reflected in the team’s leadership group. There are a few players with larger-than-life personalities here – mostly notably defenceman P.K. Subban – but, overall, it tends to be a quiet group that believes in doing rather than in saying.
“Sid doesn’t say a lot, but what he says makes sense,” Hitchcock said. “And I think he’s got similar personalities in support. Jonathan [Toews] is the same way. He’s a quiet guy, very sincere.
“What these guys do is bring a seriousness to the way we go about our business. So they’re the ones asking all the questions at practice. They’re asking all the questions post-practice. They want all the details in place before we play. It makes it really professional.”
The men’s tournament starts Wednesday with two games, including Sweden against the Czech Republic, but defending champion Canada doesn’t get under way until Thursday against Norway.
Nominally, the pressure is on Russia to duplicate what Canada did and win the Olympics at home. On Tuesday, Vladislav Tretiak, head of the Russian delegation, brought the entire men’s team to the press centre to demonstrate team unity. But Crosby says the pressure to perform is on everybody, not just the host side, noting “it doesn’t feel that much different [than Vancouver], honestly.
“I think there’s pressure every time you put this jersey on,” he said. “Playing at home, we used that energy in the games, but I’m sure we’ll have a good Canadian crowd here, too, and we know we’ve got a whole country behind us, too.”
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