The approach to picking the Canadian men’s hockey team for the 2014 Winter Olympics was summed up by its executive director Steve Yzerman in describing the group of forwards that made the grade:
“Not necessarily the best 14, but the right 14.”
Yzerman, head coach Mike Babcock and the rest of the coaches and managers of the Canadian team that was announced Tuesday, ran all 25 players through that gauge – getting the right person for the job, not necessarily the most talented. They looked at the challenge, winning a short tournament on the big international ice surface in Sochi, and tailored the team to it.
The Canadian team will have speed, smarts and experience. Speed to handle the big ice surface, the smarts to adjust to it and the experience of winning big games in tight situations.
Eleven of the 25 players were on the 2010 Games team that beat the Americans in overtime for the gold medal. Ten of them have Stanley Cup rings.
“This is going to be about speed and character and quickness of thinking,” said Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, one of the four NHL bosses who are part of Yzerman’s management group. “You’ve got the bigger surface and you can get lost on that surface quickly if you don’t think quickly and accurately.”
Also playing into the theme of speed and smarts was familiarity.
With little time to adjust to new teammates, Yzerman and company placed a premium on elite players who already play together in the NHL. Hence the addition of Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins linemate Chris Kunitz, the Anaheim Ducks’ forward pair of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, and the St. Louis Blues’ defensive pair of Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo.
“When there’s a tie, that factors in,” another member of the management group, Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, said. “If one player is better than another, then that is not a factor. But as we sat there [making the final decisions last Monday] we could put Getzlaf and Perry together, Toews and Sharp together, Crosby and Kunitz – and you’ve got two-thirds of three lines.
“This tournament is going to happen fast. You have to hit the ground running, so the more people you have comfortable with one another the better it is.”
Of course, Holland acknowledged, this doesn’t mean Babcock will not hesitate to shuffle those combinations if things are not going well. He would not expect anything less, since the familiarity extends to the management suite of the Canadian team.
Holland hired Babcock to coach the Wings in 2005, and Yzerman played for both of them and then served his apprenticeship as an NHL GM in the Detroit front office.
The Canadian Olympic team was moulded to the up-tempo, two-way game Babcock operates. He was an active participant in last Monday’s eight-hour meeting in Toronto that made the final half-dozen-or-so player decisions.
“I thought the process was very good because we had Mike Babcock there,” said Blues GM Doug Armstrong, another member of the management team. “As managers, even with our NHL teams, the greatest plans sometimes go awry when you bring the coach in on how they’re going to use the players.”
Babcock was clear in what he was looking for in practically every game situation, from who would be on the ice to protect a one-goal lead in the last minute to who should take a faceoff on the right side of the ice in that situation, and the decisions flowed from there. But Armstrong, Holland and Chiarelli also said Yzerman arrived at those decisions through consensus rather than using his authority to make a selection.
The proof of that is the exclusion of veteran Tampa Bay Lightning winger Martin St. Louis from the team. Yzerman, who is the Lightning GM, would have liked to see his captain play in the Olympics, but Babcock and the other GMs thought he is a bit too slow. So, Yzerman acquiesced and then made one of the most difficult phone calls of his management career.
“This is pro sports, there are difficult decisions made,” Yzerman said. “When it’s in your own organization these things are hard. I was a player and Mike Babcock was my coach. He had to make some hard decisions with me in my final year. I respect the job he had to do. It doesn’t mean I liked it at the time.
“I’m hopeful that we can get through this. [St. Louis] is a guy that I want to finish his career [with the Lightning]. There’s not much I can say – I can’t apologize. We’ve got to make these decisions.”
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