The bones of Canada’s rivalry with Russia in hockey date back some 42 years to a frozen moment in time. Grainy flickering images that came through mostly black-and-white television sets to a nation transfixed by unexpected and changing times in our national obsession.
It was a game immortalized in words by Foster Hewitt (“Henderson takes a wild stab at it and fell; here’s another shot, right in front, he scores!); and in song by The Tragically Hip (“If there’s a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ol’ ’72”).
The events of September of 1972 became part of the soundtrack of their lives for a generation of hockey fans, Canada defeating the Soviet Union in the final game of the Summit Series, on a larger unfamiliar international-sized ice surface in Moscow, Red Army soldiers in the stands, fans whistling their displeasure at developments in the game.
More than anything else, that familiar flashback – of Canada’s Paul Henderson slashing the puck behind goaltender Vladislav Tretiak in the final seconds of play – spawned a new interest in international hockey competition and a greater appreciation for the strides made around the world.
Up until then, Canada and Russia only ever met in “amateur” competition, Canadian students against conscripted Russian soldiers, with predictable and unflattering results for Canada. There was a parochial belief if Canadian NHLers ever got their turn against the mysterious Russian team, the tables would be turned.
And when it didn’t turn out that way, the appetite for additional best-on-best competition became voracious and set off a chain of events that circuitously will lead to the world’s best hockey players playing in February in the Black Sea resort community of Sochi.
This will be the fifth time since 1998 that the NHL has suspended play in mid-season in order to permit its best to compete in the Winter Olympics.
In the last two – 2006 (Turin) and 2010 (Vancouver) – Canada played Russia in the quarter-finals, eliminated early in Italy, triumphant in style on home ice four years later.
There are no guarantees the two countries will meet this time around – Russia is in Group A with the United States, Slovakia and Slovenia for the preliminary round; Canada in Group B with Finland, Austria and Norway.
Canada is the fifth seed in the tournament based on current International Ice Hockey Federation rankings, and will play its first three matches of the tournament at 9 p.m. local time, the last game of the night, which will create its own unique challenges.
However, the expectation is that for Canada to defend its gold medal or for Russia to win at home, their paths will ultimately intersect at some point in the medal round.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is as much of a diehard hockey fan as Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but no matter what your political interest or inclination, the exercise of choosing the men’s 2014 Olympic hockey team has turned two nations of supporters into armchair critics, endlessly dissecting and debating the available roster choices.
The IIHF has set a Jan. 7 deadline to unveil the rosters and Canada – under the leadership of executive director Steve Yzerman, who oversaw the successful Vancouver Games initiative – will do so in Toronto, in front of a live television audience.
Among the staff on Canada’s Olympic team is St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, who is about to coach (as an assistant) in his fourth consecutive Olympics and thus possesses the most institutional knowledge any of the Canadian coaches from the NHL’s Olympic era.
Two of Hitchcock’s appearances finished with Canada in the winner’s circle – gold-medal victories in Salt Lake City (2002) and Vancouver (2010). In the third, Turin in 2006, Canada lost in the quarter-final round to Russia, its earliest exit since the NHL decided to permit its players to participate in the Olympics.
Hitchcock is a career coach and was behind the bench when the Dallas Stars won the 1999 Stanley Cup and has also coached with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers.
Globe and Mail hockey columnist Eric Duhatschek spoke with Hitchcock about the lessons learned during the last three Olympics and how they might apply to 2014.
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.
Ken Hitchcock says:
“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.”
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.”
Follow me on Twitter: @eduhatschek