And so, the world’s highest-paid ball-hockey team finally moves onto the ice.
Team Canada – $157-million (U.S.) in annual salary according to The Wall Street Journal – arrived in Sochi on Monday and promptly held its first practice.
It was, at times, comical to watch: players confused about whom they were playing with, one drill quickly scrapped because no one could figure it out, linemates traded about like fantasy leagues by head coach Mike Babcock and his assistants.
But at least they were on skates and ice, not – for insurance reasons – slapping around a ball in their running shoes as happened at last summer’s “orientation camp” in Calgary.
Some of the expected combinations held true – centre Sidney Crosby playing with his Pittsburgh Penguins partner Chris Kunitz, Anaheim Ducks formidable forward pairing of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry together – and some were made up and changed as the practice went on.
“A lot of us weren’t really sure,” New York Islanders centre John Tavares said. “I think a lineup was posted somewhere in the room, but we really didn’t know. We just kind of got here and got on the ice.
“I know [Babcock] called my name and I was down the middle, so I think that’s where I’m starting. I’ll have to double-check.”
They were, as they all said, just happy to be here, happy to be ensconced in the athletes village – which they praised – and happy to stretch their legs on the ice after a long nine-hour flight in which some slept and some could not.
Happiest of all had to be Martin St. Louis, the Tampa Bay Lightning star who was added to the team as a replacement for his NHL teammate Steven Stamkos, whose broken leg has not healed well enough to allow perhaps Canada’s best sniper to play.
St. Louis, looking like a Timbits player among giants such as Perry and Getzlaf, tore about the ice, easily the most noticeable of all the Canadians skating – and not because of his diminutive size.
“I saw him score one nice one on the 2-on-1,” Rick Nash said, “but that’s what you expect from a guy like that. He’s a great player.”
Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman said the first initial adjustment would be to the time change. That, however, applied to all the players coming over from North America and therefore would affect all the top teams in the tournament.
“We could talk about the size of the ice,” Yzerman said, “but I think the bigger adjustment is [that elite players will have to accept] playing a lesser role.”
It is something Yzerman and Babcock and their assistants have talked about at length to the players, all of whom are stars on their own NHL teams and, therefore, used to the bulk of the ice time available to players at their position. A first-liner back home might well become a fourth-liner in Sochi.
“It doesn’t matter,” Perry said. “I’ll do whatever I need to do. Obviously, back home, you’re going to play 17 to 20 minutes a game. Here, you could play six, seven, eight minutes a game. You got to go out and beat the line you’re playing against.
“That’s the main goal: every shift to be your best.”
Canada’s first match will be Thursday against Norway, not considered a major force in Olympic hockey. However, Tavares, who played in Europe during the most recent NHL lockout, says Canada would be foolish to take any team lightly.
“Some of these countries are maybe not as well-known,” he said, “but they’ve played together for a long time. They grew up together and play together. They practise together and, obviously, we just got here today. That makes a big difference.”
Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter was assigned to the Crosby-Kunitz line, and Crosby said later he was impressed.
“I think the things that stick out are his speed and his shot,” the Team Canada captain said. “He’s going to get open and he’s going to create things with his speed. We’ll figure things out as we go along.”
They may not have that luxury, as the tournament is so short and quickly boils down to a “win-or-else” situation. Babcock did not mince words when he told the media if Carter keeps passing the puck back to Crosby, as he was during the brief workout, rather than using his excellent shot, he won’t be playing long with Canada’s top player.
“We’ll see what happens come the first game,” Carter said.
The Canadians, who will try to defend the gold medal won four years ago in Vancouver, played down the high expectations back home.
“Do we have more pressure than the Russians?” Getzlaf said. “I doubt it. We have a lot of pressure back home – but even more so in our dressing room.”
“All the best players in the world,” Perry added. “Not a better thing to do than put ’em all in one rink and let ’em go at it.”
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