“There were three or four things that were really relevant to our result. First of all, our team in general was really banged up going over. We made the decision after consulting with doctors and medical people that our players would eventually be okay in time – which ended up not being true. They were banged up. Part of this was, no Scott Niedermayer. But that wasn’t the major issue. The best hockey I’ve seen anyone play was in the 2004 World Cup. The team that played in the ’04 World Cup played unbelievable. We felt, out of respect, that that team deserved a chance to play [in Turin]. We felt it was going to be quick enough, but we weren’t quick enough and we couldn’t create any separation on the attack or on the rush or anything.
“So when we went over there, part of the responsibility that we have to bear as coaches is, we had never thought that countries wouldn’t fore-check us. And that’s what happened. Three or four countries barely sent one guy in. Some countries sent nobody in. And so they made us skate through them in the neutral zone and we didn’t necessarily have the foot speed to get through. Teams basically backed off. It was hard slogging for us. I’d never seen that before – and you have to make a lot of plays to get through that type of check. It was a real eye-opener in how different the game was, from the small ice to the big ice. People got a 1-0 lead and they just played defence to win 1-0. It was all a completely new experience, to see a team get a 1-0 lead in the first 10 minutes and then have five guys back the rest of the way.
“It wasn’t the [larger] surface that made the game different. It was the way the teams over there played the game that was so different. I didn’t watch the gold-medal game, but I watched the semi-final game, where neither team fore-checked. It was unbelievable to watch – in a painful way.”
Pressure unlike any other
The pressure of the hometown Olympics in 2010 was immense for the Canadian team, now run by executive director Steve Yzerman, who took over from Gretzky. Even players hardened by long Stanley Cup runs felt a level of pressure there they hadn’t experienced elsewhere – because of the nature of the tournament, a single one-game elimination format. Yzerman added a frisson of youth – defenceman Drew Doughty had just turned 20; centre Jonathan Toews was only 21 – to a team that included Niedermayer, Pronger and a handful of first-time Olympians such as Sidney Crosby, Rick Nash, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Doughty and Duncan Keith were the No. 1 blueline pair and midway through the tournament, the coaching staff switched goalies from Martin Brodeur to Roberto Luongo.
Canada finished second in its pool in the preliminary round behind the United States and as a result, had to play an extra qualifying game which wound up helping it develop a better rhythm. Canada squeaked out a 3-2 overtime win in the gold-medal final, but the game of the tournament was a 7-3 rout over Russia in the quarter-finals, a game in which goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov famously said the Canadians came at them “like gorillas out of a cage.”
Ken Hitchcock says:
“For me, things went right in Vancouver because of the preparation. The buy-in from the players was immediate and it was made easy because some of the older players willingly took support roles at the start and then became prime-time players at the end, when the games were on the line. The second part that made it really smooth was, the camp in the summer [in Calgary] gave us the teaching mechanisms we were able to put in place and kept us organized early on. The whole time, everything felt really organized and really efficient and the buy-in.
“What the young players brought was an attitude and energy that really helped us early in the tournament. They were really excited to be there and it rubbed off on everybody. They were so open to learn, it felt really comfortable. But I really believe one of the major things, those older players, they took a back seat early, but they didn’t fight anything. You look at the minutes played by Pronger and Niedermayer and [Dan] Boyle early – not a lot – then look at it late. Holy smokes! Their attitude towards being a part of the team had a major impact on everybody. Everything off the ice, every part was run by Pronger or Niedermayer, every function, every off-ice workout. I know the gold-medal game went to overtime, but I never felt more comfortable with a team that could adjust, any time, any place – between periods, between games. I felt like this team would have no trouble adjusting.”