The jerseys were red, the maple leaf was prominent, but it was a hockey team that no one recognized: not their fans, not their rivals, not even themselves.
To repeat as Olympic gold medalists, Team Canada’s coaches and its players knew they had to remake themselves. The price of winning gold in Sochi was that they had to erase their identity from Vancouver and before, and build a completely new approach.
Though Canada had won gold in two of the past four Olympics since the National Hockey League began sending its best to the Games, it had never conquered the large international ice surface during that time. So general manager Steve Yzerman, head coach Mike Babcock and a cast of others set out to rectify that problem.
It was a vision they all agreed upon two years earlier. It was unlike any game plan Team Canada had ever assembled. They would play defence. And when they were on offence, they would also be playing defence – controlling the game by controlling the puck in the offensive zone.
It would infuriate some hockey fans back home – Sidney Crosby going multiple games without a point was just one example. And it would show itself in surprising ways: like noted offensive sniper Rick Nash backpedalling furiously at centre ice to pick up his defensive assignment in the middle of the gold medal game.
The result, Mr. Yzerman said, is what he believes is the best defensive performance a Canadian team has ever produced on the world stage.
“Since I’ve been around, it’s the most impressive, the greatest display of defensive hockey,” Mr. Yzerman said after the 3-0 win over Sweden. It was Canada’s second-straight shutout after blanking the Americans 1-0 in the semi-final, in what will go down as the team’s best game of the tournament.
“It wasn’t strictly playing defence,” said Yzerman, who also announced on Sunday that he is stepping down as the team’s executive director . “We weren’t sitting in a shell. Part of our defence was being aggressive and forechecking, and pressuring, and closing gaps, and not letting [other teams] get the red line or get our blue line.”
A solemn Swedish coach Par Marts admitted he’d never seen that brand of hockey from the Canadians.
“They looked for the chances to forecheck and if they didn’t have the chance, they went back,” Mr. Marts said. When asked what he thought was the biggest difference between this Canadian team and others he’s seen before, Mr. Marts said it was the grasp of the larger ice surface. “I think the surface was too big for them [in the past], so they played more defence than before. That’s the main difference.”
But the vision, drawn up by a brain trust that included NHL coaches Claude Julien, Lindy Ruff and others, required the star players to buy into the system. Canadian forward Patrick Marleau pointed out that every player on Team Canada is an offensive leader on his NHL team. But in Sochi, they understood that winning on the big ice didn’t necessarily mean scoring, especially with goaltender Carey Price playing the best hockey of his career.
While critics howled that Canada’s superstars weren’t scoring, Mr. Yzerman said the only number that mattered to Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and others was wins. It was a mental challenge that every player accepted, he said.
“Everyone wants to measure your play by goals and assists, and it’s hard to overcome that. It’s even harder to convince yourself that, ‘Hey I’m playing well, we’re winning, that’s good enough,’” Mr. Yzerman said. “They were committed to this, and I think that’s ultimately why we won is because our leaders, our best players, said, ‘Guys we’re going to win; we don’t care about individual statistics. We’re going to play the right way.’”
There were times – a 2-1 victory over Latvia for example – when it looked like the defensive strategy was cutting things a little too close for comfort. But Mr. Babcock believes what gets forgotten is the number of scoring chances Canada generated. Coach Babcock said Mr. Crosby was the most dominant player at the Olympics in the last few games of the tournament, though no one saw him score until his breakaway goal in the second period of Sunday’s game.
“Great defence means you play defence fast and you have the puck all the time, so you’re always on offence,” Mr. Babcock said. “Don’t get confused, we out-chanced these teams big time, [but] we didn’t score.”
And yet, not everything went according to script. When Sunday’s game began, Mr. Yzerman said he thought Canada looked jittery and ineffective. “The first eight or 10 minutes of the game, we didn’t have our legs, we didn’t have much going, we looked a little bit nervous,” he said.
But then, almost poetically, Mr. Babcock reached for the one player with something to prove, the guy who almost didn’t make this team: Martin St. Louis.
Back in January, Mr. Yzerman was forced to tell Mr. St. Louis, who plays for him in Tampa Bay, that he wasn’t going to crack the Sochi lineup. But when doctors wouldn’t give Steven Stamkos clearance to play on a broken leg that wasn’t fully healed, the 38-year-old Mr. St. Louis was granted one last chance at an Olympic medal.
And when Canada needed a spark Sunday, Mr. Yzerman believes it was the ageless winger who altered the game in Canada’s favour.
“I really believe if you watch this game over, Mike made a change in his lines, and put Marty on with Matt Duchene and Rick Nash,” the general manager said. “That really kind of changed the course of the game … [Mr. St. Louis] came through in a difficult circumstance.”
For two years, Mr. Yzerman knew exactly where he wanted to be when Canada won gold. The architect of the team wanted to be standing high above the ice looking down at the victory celebration. It was how he intended to savour the moment on his own.
“I just stayed upstairs and watched,” Team Canada’s general manager said. “I wanted to see the flag being raised. That’s what I did.”
But his plan backfired. As the players and coaches gathered at centre ice for the team photo, Mr. Yzerman was stuck, haplessly trying to make his way to ice level. When the cameras flashed, he was inside one of the Bolshoy Ice Dome’s slow moving elevators.
From now on, whenever that iconic photo is shown, all of Team Canada 2014 will be in it – except for Mr. Yzerman. But for as long as this version of Team Canada is talked about, and it may be a very long time given how dominant this team was defensively, Mr. Yzerman will be very much in the picture.
History will show that Canada went undefeated at the Olympics. And on paper it will have looked easy. The stats will also show that big-name offensive dynamos rarely put the puck in the net.
But Mr. Babcock summed up Canada’s commitment to defence this way: “Does anybody know who won the scoring race? Does anybody care?”
He then paused for dramatic effect. “Does anybody know who won the gold medal?”Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: