Preparation for Canada’s 2014 title defence got off to a rocky start in August, when, because of the skyrocketing cost of insuring all those high-priced NHL contracts, the Canadian players didn’t have any actual on-ice training sessions during a four-day orientation camp. Instead, the players sat in classrooms, as they received instructions about the system he wanted to play from head coach Mike Babcock, and a sense of what to expect logistically when they arrived in Russia in early February. Instead of going on the ice to practice, they played two of the world’s most scrutinized ball hockey games, in running shoes, with helmets and sticks in hand, Babcock directing traffic as they did a run-through of breakouts, fore-checking strategies and special-teams prep.
Security will be an issue again, as fears of terrorism circle Putin’s showcase Winter Games, but according to Hitchcock, once the players are on site, none of the transportation complications they faced in Salt Lake City will be an issue this time around. In the two Olympics played on the larger international-sized ice – Nagano and Turin – neither Canada nor the United States earned a medal.
Canada opens with games against two of the world’s hockey-playing minnows, Austria and Norway, before finishing off with a game against Finland, a perennial Olympic medalist. The travel, the jet lag, the larger ice surface, the defensive postures the European teams will likely adopt will all contribute to the challenge facing the Canadian team. Canada’s leading point-getter in Vancouver, Jonathan Toews (Chicago Blackhawks) will return, but not its leading goal-scorer (Jarome Iginla of the Boston Bruins, who had five goals in seven games). And while Russia is under enormous scrutiny as the home nation, Canada has the pressure to defend the gold medal.
Ken Hitchcock says:
“What’s really changed for us [in the eight years since Turin] is we have the ability – and so does every other country – to prescout each other. You scout the coaches who are going to coach these countries to watch the systems they’re going to play. We have people looking at them. They have people looking at the way we do things. There’s people following Mike [Babcock] around, following me around, following Lindy [Ruff], following Claude [Julien] from other countries. So there are no grey areas now. We know how the Finns and Swedes are going to play because we’ve watched them play. Each country’s going to have their distinct way of playing, but there’s not going to be a lot of surprises.
“The biggest challenge for us is going to be time management. We don’t play until 9 o’clock at night. That’s a long day. There isn’t a player since minor hockey that’s ever played that late. So how we sort out our days and how we sort out our body clocks is going to be really important. That’s going to be a big challenge for us.
“From the athlete’s standpoint, these Games are going to be great. In talking to the world under-18 team and to the women’s team that played [in Sochi], the access to the facilities is terrific. In this tournament, you’re going to be able to get around as easily as you ever got around anywhere. The players are all going to be in the dorm living areas all the time. You could literally walk to the venues. Or the shuttles will leave every 15 minutes. Both arenas are terrific. The availability of practice ice, all those things, from a pure hockey standpoint, this is going to be a terrific event.
“I think it’s going to make for great hockey because the focus is going to be on hockey. I think it’s going to be some of the best hockey we’ve ever seen.”
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