CALGARY -- Seeing Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Canadian Olympic men's hockey team playing ball hockey on an international ice surface was humorous to some, but there was a method to head coach Mike Babcock's madness.
He wanted his players to get a feel for the size of the Olympic ice surface, how he wants the team's breakouts to go, as well as the forecheck. It was really no different than what football and basketball teams do during off days.
So the ice was covered and the Olympic hopefuls went out in running shoes with sticks and gloves. Call it a ball hockey walk-through.
Babcock went as far as saying he wouldn't be surprised to see his team, the Detroit Red Wings, do a walk-through at the team hotel one day, rather than take to the ice.
"I thought this was great," he said. "No one got killed. It wasn't hard. No one got hurt. There was no wear and tear on the body. It was fun, and it was different. The National Hockey League is 82 games, and it's a grind. There was nothing wrong with this. It was good. They tell me Bob Johnson used to do this. That's what [Edmonton Oilers president] Kevin Lowe was telling me last night."
Babcock did his walk-through research. He summoned advice from Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo and Detroit Lions quarterbacks coach Todd Downing on how to conduct the exercise.
Then, before Crosby and Co. arrived in Calgary on Sunday, he enlisted the services of the University of Calgary men's team. Babcock and the rest of the national team coaching staff put the U of C team through a dress rehearsal before the big boys arrived.
"It was nice that we were able to go through different situational things," Canadian forward Steven Stamkos said. "It's one thing to watch it on the video and see clips, but getting a chance to actually physically go through it, even though we weren't on skates, it was nice just to get spacing, knowing which lanes we have to fill. It was a very productive day."
Between the pipes
Easily the most scrutinized position for the Canadian team over the next three months will be who tends goal in Sochi.
Roberto Luongo may be the incumbent because he was in goal for Canada when it struck gold in Vancouver. But considering Luongo was a backup last year and Montreal Canadiens standout Carey Price did not perform well in the playoffs against the Ottawa Senators, this is a wide-open battle.
Besides the others invited to the Calgary camp -- Mike Smith, Braden Holtby and Stanley Cup-winning goalie Corey Crawford -- don't count out Cam Ward and Marc-Andre Fleury.
"Anybody," said Babcock, when asked which goalies outside this camp could make the team. "There's lots of players who aren't here that probably might end up with an opportunity. Play good. I read or hear, 'Oh this guy feels snubbed.' So what? Do something about it. The great thing about life is you get to control what happens to you the majority of the time. Do something about it if you're not here.
"One of these goalies will be real good. And one of these goalies will be hot [going into the Olympics] that everyone will know who's playing goal for Canada."
From Crawford on down, each Canadian goalie candidate does not buy into the criticism that this is a position of weakness with the Canadian Olympic team. Price doesn't mind the constant scrutiny. After all, he plays in Montreal.
"This is a daily occurrence where I play," he said. "It's nothing new to me, being in front of everybody here, it's just another day on the job. I think that's definitely beneficial to me. At the end of the day your performance is on the ice and it'll take whoever is playing the best at that time. That's the way I choose to look at it."
Babcock said not to read too much into the lines he employed in the walk-through. But for those who want to know, here's how the forward units and defence pairings broke down:
At first, Dylan Walchuk thought someone was playing a joke on him when he answered his phone on Sunday evening. But this was no joke.
The voice on the other end was Mark Howell, his new coach at the University of Calgary. He informed his incoming freshman forward that Hockey Canada wanted Walchuk to help out the Canadian men's Olympic team in their ball hockey walk-through on Monday.
"It was like a dream come true," he said. "It was sweet. To see those guys on TV all the time and then getting to play with them, they're all good guys and it was an experience I will never forget.
"It will be cool to see myself on television tonight."
Hockey Canada needed someone to fill in for Joe Thornton. The San Jose Sharks captain stayed home this week because his two-month-old baby boy briefly had to be hospitalized with an illness.
When the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Walchuk entered Canada's dressing room, he found his stall right between Crosby and Brad Marchand. He even had a brief discussion with Crosby.
So why did Hockey Canada choose Walchuk? Well, when Babcock and his assistants put the University of Calgary through a practice last week, Babcock was impressed with the former Spokane Chiefs forward. It probably didn't hurt that when Babcock coached junior, it was in Spokane.
"That's the best story about this whole thing so far," Babcock said. "Life is about what you make of it. Mark Howell and the U of C Dinosaurs helped us out, and they helped us out to get the coaches organized.
"Their team had a team party, a double-kegger the night before I came in. We put them through the paces and that kid was the best kid on the ice by a million miles. So when Thornton couldn't come in, that's how life should be -- when you do good things, good things happen. He did a good job. He didn't have to. He did a good job, was excellent out there."
After he explored opportunities in Europe and the ECHL, the 21-year-old Walchuk of McBride, B.C., only decided to attend the University of Calgary a couple weeks ago. He will study business.
He took line rushes with Jordan Staal and Taylor Hall. What will he take away from this experience?
"Hopefully these shoes?" he joked, pointing to the pair of expensive runners each Canadian player wore. "The biggest thing is the experience and their demeanor at the rink. That is something a guy like me should pick up on."
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