The Canadian men's Olympic ice hockey team has never won abroad. So in order to be better prepared to perform on the the big ice surface they have enlisted the services of former Edmonton Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger to help the Canadian cause.
CALGARY -- Head coach Mike Babcock has made it clear to the hopefuls for the Canadian men's Olympic hockey team that they better hit their stride in the first three months of the season or they're not going to Sochi.
"It's the guys that play the best who are going to be on the team. The guys who can skate, the guys who take care of the puck, the guys who play 200 feet," Babcock said on Sunday as the Canadian management team, coaches and players began a four-day orientation camp at Hockey Canada's headquarters.
"This isn't an evaluation camp at all. This is an opportunity to get to know one another, get some sense of how we're going to play and understand what it's going to take to be on our team. We'll explain that to them. In the end, the management team is going to watch them very closely the first three months. Whoever's playing the best will be on the team."
In other words, there will be no loyalty to the 2010 team members.
"We're real excited about the opportunity we had [in 2010]," Babcock said. "We enjoyed it. But that's over with. This is a new opportunity, and so some guys who played on that team are still on the top of their game. They're going to be on the next team and some guys who were on that team didn't get invited to the camp and their career is not at that point."
Sochi will be the fifth Winter Olympics with NHL players. Canada has gone a perfect two-for-two in North America with gold medals in 2002 in Salt Lake City and 2010 in Vancouver. But abroad the results have been dismal. In 1998 the Canadian contingent finished fourth in Nagano, Japan, and the Canadians were even worse in Turin, Italy, where they finished seventh.
If there were lessons learned from the 2006 team it was that Wayne Gretzky and the management team were too loyal to members from the championship 2002 club and the Canadians didn't have the right personnel to compete on the big ice.
Martin Brodeur, Simon Gagne, Chris Pronger, Adam Foote, Wade Redden, Rob Blake, Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth were the players common to the 2002 and 2006 teams. There also were injuries. Scott Niedermayer was hurt and Pronger played hurt.
Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe was part of the management teams in 2006 and 2010 and returns for another kick at the can. He was asked for his thoughts on what went wrong in 2006.
"We are much more open-minded to have a different team than the gold medal team in Vancouver," he said. "Not that we were close-minded for '06 after Salt Lake, but certainly respectful of the group that had won in '02.
"The biggest lesson is foot speed -- for all players. You have to be able to skate and you have to be able to move the puck. We've seen that time and time again, in '06 and [at the] world championship the last couple of years. It's quite evident. The team will be made up of players who can skate, think and move the puck. There could be a number of changes form the gold medal team in Vancouver."
Canadian team executive director Steve Yzerman recalled that even the gold-medal winning 2002 team had trouble adjusting to the bigger ice surface in Salt Lake City. He remarked the Canadians were too aggressive and often got caught out of position on the forecheck.
"I know in '02 in Salt Lake we adjusted after a game against Sweden," said Yzerman, who added that Canada shifted to a 1-2-2 forecheck after that game. "It is a different game. It really becomes a lot more like soccer in that you've got to defend more as a team and pressure more as a group of five."
Ralph Krueger joins the team
To help formulate game plans, prepare scouting reports on the other countries and to be a sounding board for the coaching staff, Hockey Canada has hired former Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger as an advisor.
"We brought Ralph on board because he knows way more about the big ice than we do, and the bottom line is we don't want to be making decisions over there because we got backed off because something went wrong," said Babcock, who added that Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien will be responsible for the penalty kill.
"[Julien] was asking Ralph this morning, 'Can we pressure that hard?' No one knows better than him. Real good man. Real good hockey coach. We thought he was a real good coach in our league and an international coach for a long time. He's going to be a big part of our staff. Likes to have fun, and is going to be important for us."
The 46 Canadian players invited to Calgary will stay off the ice and be confined to meeting and video rooms over the next few days because of the high cost of insurance. Hockey Canada estimated it would have cost more than $1 million to cover the expensive contracts of the Canadian hopefuls, whose contracts were worth $259 million for the 2013-14 season and more than $1.5 billion over the length of all their deals.
After this camp concludes, the coaching and management staffs will stay in touch monthly and the conference calls will intensify as the Dec. 31 roster deadline looms.
There are whispers that the United States team has asked for a 24-hour extension in order to announce its team during the broadcast of the Winter Classic on New Year's Day.
Tim WharnsbyTim's worked the sports beat at The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Sun, specializing in Canada's one true sporting obsession - hockey. He knows the players, the coaches, the backroom boys and most importantly, the fans. That's what he brings to his stories. Knowledge, fairness and understanding are trademarks of a Wharnsby story. That's what you will get here as he writes for CBCSports.ca.
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