Global change causes change in tactics
The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics came just six months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and thus were played with unprecedented levels of security. It was a tournament that began badly for the Canadian men – with a lopsided 5-1 loss to Sweden to kick it off – and ended well, with a decisive 5-2 victory in the gold-medal game against the United States. With 90 seconds to go and the game well in hand, the crowd at the ‘E’ Centre broke into a spontaneous version of O Canada, as Canada ended a 50-year Olympic drought. Some four hours before the event started, however, Hitchcock and the rest of the team’s coaching staff – which included head coach Pat Quinn, Jacques Martin and Wayne Fleming – were in the same security line as reporters to enter the arena. Security was an omnipresent factor in 2002, and Hitchcock says a tactical change early on in the event – when Canada simply stopped practising – probably contributed as much to the victory as anything.
Eventually, the Canadians got into the groove, winning a nice semi-final match-up against Belarus and then playing its finest game of the tournament when it mattered most – in the gold-medal final against the United States. They were masters of efficiency that day, players taking high-intensity 30- to 40-second shifts, permitting them to play at a pace that seemed inconceivable earlier in the tournament. In summary, they came a long way in a short period of time in atypical fashion, considering the minimal practice time, which is usually how teams improve.
Ken Hitchcock says: “In Salt Lake City, we had one hockey practice and it was so much drama that we just flat gassed it and stopped practising. Everything was done with a meeting to prepare to play the games. You had to clear security to get on the bus to leave the dorms. You had to clear security to get off the bus to practice. You had to clear security to get back on the bus. You had to clear security to get back in the dorms. So to get to a hockey practice, you had to clear security four times.”
A one-hour hockey practice turned into a 5 1/2-hour ordeal. So time management became critical. I really believe there were countries were impacted in a really negative way because they continued to try and practice. It wasn’t just the going to practice. It had a negative impact on some teams. I know because we would be listening to the players complain in the dining area of the dorms – how frustrated they were to be going to a 30- or 40-minute practice that the NHL players on the team knew they didn’t need.
“After the game against the Germans, four or five of the veteran players came to the coaching staff and they said, ‘You tell us what you want and we’ll sell it.’ They just said, ‘You tell us how you want us to play and we’ll make sure whatever you guys want will get done.’ They said: ‘This is too important and too big an opportunity to let slip away. You give us the game plan and we’ll get the guys to buy in.’ And that’s exactly what took place. We didn’t present accountability to the team. We presented it to those four or five guys and they sold it to the team. That was so great.”
Canada couldn’t score goals in Turin, partly because of injuries to the team’s defence. Scott Niedermayer had to withdraw days before the event started and his absence on the big ice was keenly felt, given he was likely the best skater in the world at that time. And Chris Pronger, in the prime of his career, was hobbled by a lower-body injury that significantly limited his mobility. Moreover, Canada had a hard time adjusting to unfamiliar opponents, who rarely ventured in on the fore-check, on a larger ice surface where it was difficult to create plays. There was the distraction of the gambling scandal involving executive director Wayne Gretzky’s wife, but the tournament was won and lost because Canada could never find its offensive stride.
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