The best man for the job has never drawn up scoring plays for Joe Thornton, never told Shane Doan how to check and never pushed Ed Jovanovski to play better defence. He has never coached a single game in the National Hockey League and, truth be told, has never handled a tough assignment beyond major-junior hockey and the world junior championship.
But make no mistake: Marc Habscheid is the right man to be coaching Canada's team at the men's world hockey championship. Who he is, what he stands for and what he's done have set the tone for Hockey Canada. Even before he blew the whistle at yesterday's opening practice at the Father Bauer Arena here, Habscheid let everyone know nothing mattered more than winning.
He'd made that point when he agreed to step aside as the head coach so that Pat Quinn, Ken Hitchcock, Jacques Martin and Wayne Fleming, Canada's winning quartet from the 2004 World Cup, could reassemble for the 2005 worlds in Austria.
It didn't matter that Habscheid's contract with Hockey Canada has a clause that stipulates he is to be the head man for the worlds. What mattered was winning, and to that end, Habscheid was willing to serve those who had done so before. Asked whether it bothered him that others were considered before he was appointed, Habscheid seemed puzzled that such a question would even be asked.
"By no means," he said the other day. "I'm proud to be a part of this. . . . [Assistant coaches]Craig MacTavish and Tom Renney are great guys and we'll work as a team. You just play the cards you're dealt."
That same philosophy guided Habscheid's NHL playing career. He spent 11 seasons with four teams and always showed more drive than skill. In his best season, he tallied 54 points and scored once in the playoffs. Twice, he spent an entire season with the Canadian national team, and in 1988 he competed in the Calgary Winter Olympics. In 1992, he played at the world championship. Whenever Hockey Canada called, Habscheid said yes, even if he knew he'd spend more time on the bench than the ice.
When he decided to get into coaching, his commitment and style was as straight ahead as a breakaway rush. He guided the Western Hockey League's Kelowna Rockets to the Memorial Cup on two occasions and won the national title in 2004. The year before, he was chosen as the best coach in the Canadian Hockey League, and now he has a team of NHL stars and superstars to manage under the most unusual of circumstances.
Many of the game's biggest names (Mario Lemieux, Jarome Iginla and Joe Sakic) said they wanted no part of this team. Of those who said yes, some players are still overseas with their European teams. Some, because of the NHL lockout, haven't played a competitive game in months. Others have barely skated. To make a cohesive unit from such an assorted mix would be a challenge for even the most experienced NHL coach.
And yet with Habscheid at the helm, everything looks right and feels right, especially to those who know Habscheid or have played for him in the past.
"He's a farmer from Saskatchewan, so I don't know how much he can change," Robyn Regehr said jokingly. He spent two years with Habscheid when he coached the Kamloops Blazers. "Realistically, his coaching style will change, or has changed, because he's now dealing with players who have played professional hockey for a number of years. A lot of them know what to do out there. They just need some reminders, or a little bit of guidance or a system the team wants to play."
Does that mean Habscheid won't respond if the pros produce a sloppy effort?
"He tore a few strips off me [in Kamloops]" he said. "He felt I wasn't playing well, and I wasn't, and it was big-time motivation to get my butt in gear. Oh, yeah, he's got a sharp tongue. Hopefully, we won't have to hear it."
Habscheid is aware Canada has won the gold medal at the past two world championships and that fans will be following this team with heightened interest. The way he sees it, that's good; that's how it should be, especially when Canadian hockey players agree to pull on the same jersey and pursue the only thing that matters.
"The one thing athletes have is that great pride in themselves and in the team they're representing," Habscheid said, "and now they're representing their country. There won't be a problem getting them ready."
If there is, know that the sharp-tongued farmer from Saskatchewan is the best man for the job. The best to make things right.