Steve Yzerman: On the hot seat
Team Canada's executive director hopes a more 'balanced' team leads to Olympic hockey gold.
As Hockey Canada's executive director, the newly enshrined Hall of Famer has the heavy burden of overseeing the selection of the men's hockey team for the Vancouver Olympics.
The official announcement of the 23-man roster will no doubt draw heated debate.
Yzerman takes over the role held previously by icon Wayne Gretzky, who was praised for helping end Canada's goal-medal drought at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City but maligned for picking a squad that was ultimately humiliated following a seventh-place finish four years later in Turin, Italy.
For Yzerman — a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Detroit Red Wings and member of the 2002 gold-medal team — the chance to guide Canada to Olympic glory far outweighs the prospect of another disappointment, this time on home soil.
With Canada's orientation camp in Calgary a distant memory, Yzerman spoke to CBCSports.ca regarding the enormous pressure placed on his team, the unpredictability of the Olympic tournament and the hotly contested battle for the No. 1 goaltending spot.
CBCSports.ca: By all reports, the orientation camp in August went well. What were your overall impressions, and how important was this time together?
Yzerman: I was pleased with it. What we wanted the players to do is spend a few days with coaches on the ice. It wasn't a condition camp; it wasn't a tryout. It was for all the prospective players to get out on the ice with the coaches. To go through the way the [coaches] want them to play, how they're going to set up on the power play, how they're going to break out of our zone and how they're going to kill penalties.
I thought the coaches [Mike Babcock, Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff and Jacques Lemaire] did a really good job with that. … Some of these players will not get into Vancouver [for the Olympics] until late Sunday night [Feb. 14], potentially Monday morning. We'll have one practice on Monday afternoon, and then we play the afternoon of the 16th. So there's no time for preparation, and this was our only time for that. Also, for the players themselves, especially the younger guys, I want them to walk into the locker room in Vancouver and the faces to be familiar so they can be comfortable. I think all those things were accomplished.
CBCSports.ca: None of the players competing will have a chance to get their bearings, or a least time to rest before the first game. How difficult will that be for them?
Yzerman: I think every country would ideally like to be much more prepared. Without actually getting a chance to play some pre-tournament games or spend time together on the ice, you don't really know what you have until you're on the ice and see how things work out. Every country is in the same boat in the tournament, but it, obviously, would be a little bit more comfortable to know what you have, had you [be given] the time to play some games beforehand and really see how things were meshing.
CBCSports.ca: Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash were always on a line together at the camp and looked really good. Is it a better strategy to come up with pairs and then add a third player or simply pencil in line combinations?
In my previous experience in the Olympic tournaments, the lines have changed. You talk about combination at the start of the tournament and then halfway through you have guys playing with players that you didn't [think of] but for whatever reason they seem to work. [The coaches] will start the tournament with some ideas but expect that to change, and it usually does. As far as line combinations, the coaches played around with that a little bit, but that would be up to them. Those first three games of the tournament will be, I guess, where they'll do any tinkering they can and figure out who's going where.
CBCSports.ca: Nash, Ryan Getzlaf, and Dany Heatley were unbelievable at the world championships two years ago in Canada. Will the coaching staff take into consideration past successful units?
Yzerman: Yeah, I mean it is something for them to fall back on and look at players that have played well together. That line [Getzlaf, Nash and Heatley] you mentioned, they scored a lot. They put the puck in the net and generated a lot of points. I think there are areas of the game that they can improve upon. In some ways, they will have improved in those areas. To answer your question, guys that have played together in the past and been successful … it's a good starting point.
CBCSports.ca: In true Mike Babcock style, we saw defencemen consistently jumping into the rush during the camp. Does that help guys like Mike Green and Dan Boyle as they pursue an Olympic spot?
Yzerman: Yes. With the personnel that we have available to us, defencemen have to be good defencemen, first off. But just that added dimension of carrying the puck up the ice and adding to the offence is, I think, a great skill and tool to have. If we can incorporate everyone in the attack, obviously, it helps. There are some extremely skilled, good offensive-minded defencemen that are also good defensively. We want to be a fast team, we want to be able to move the puck up the ice, and having mobile, skilled defencemen is very important to how we want to play.
CBCSports.ca: The competition for the No. 1 goaltender spot will no doubt be the toughest decision for Babcock and his staff. With Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur expected to battle for the lead position, will strong play in the months leading up to the Games be the determining factor?
Yzerman: I'll obviously have some input, but at the end of the day, the coaches will decide who starts in goal for us. I think for that position it's very important that we have guys coming into the tournament that are on top of their game. The position doesn't allow a player to find time to get his game in shape. Our depth is outstanding. [Carolina goaltender] Cam Ward won a [world championship] gold medal and a Stanley Cup. In the last two years, [Pittsburgh netminder] Marc-André Fleury has gone to the finals and won Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
CBCSports.ca: And Marty is living proof that you don't have to start the opening game of the Olympics in order to play. You saw that firsthand in 2002, right?
Yzerman: The plan changes [laughing]. That's basically what happened to us in Salt Lake and Marty was in the net [after the opening-game loss to Sweden]. We're going to have three excellent goaltenders and they're very qualified starters. We're in a good position there. First of all, we're going to figure out which three we're going to bring, and then who starts once we get there.
CBCSports.ca: Expectations are normally enormous for the men's team, but with the Games in Vancouver, it's only magnified. How do you think the players will deal with that kind of pressure?
Yzerman: I think our players will be fine with it. They'll use it to feed off the adrenaline and energy you get from playing in your home country. Everybody involved knows the expectation here is to win gold. The one thing I like about it that I found in past Olympics is it doesn't really matter which country you're playing in because you stay in the Olympic village, and you're pretty much sequestered from everything going on around you. The tournament is played in such a short period of time that you're playing your game, and once that's over, you're getting ready for your next one. There's not a lot of time to get caught up in anything else. I'm quite confident that playing on home ice in our own country will be a benefit for us.
CBCSports.ca: Which other nations do you feel are similar to Canada as far as pressure goes?
Yzerman: I would say there are two other countries where probably the expectation is to win gold as well. The Russians are two-time world champions, and they're coming into this tournament expecting to win. Sweden is the defending Olympic gold medallist, and it will be a disappointment back in their home country if they don't win. Just because we're playing in our home country doesn't make [winning gold] an automatic for us. We've won one out of the last three with NHL players, and it just goes to show that with the Czechs winning in 1998, Canada in 2002 and the Swedes in '06, that, really, I think, any team can win it. You lose one game at the wrong time, and you're out of the tournament. There's very little margin for error. I think our players understand the expectations and what they are in for.
CBCSports.ca: What kind of team are you and your staff looking to put together?
Yzerman: What I'm hoping for is a balanced, complete hockey team. We can have all the elements of speed, skill, strength and a work ethic. We'll just be a well-rounded team. How Canada traditionally plays in these events is a high-tempo game, and we attack and defend well.
We're going to bring in players that are good at both ends of the rink. With the depth of talent I believe Canada has, I think we can put four lines out there. We can put out every defensive paring that can contribute offensively and be very sound in our own zone. We're not going to have to hide any line or worry about matchups because [of fear] that a line can't play against a particular team. We're going to go hard on offence, and when we don't have the puck, we're going to work hard to get it back. It's kind of simple [chuckle].
CBCSports.ca: You can make the argument that Canada can always field two Olympic teams because of its depth. Having said that, are the final few spots going to be the toughest part of selecting the team?
Yzerman: Yes. In talking with people from Hockey Canada, [Oilers president] Kevin Lowe and even Wayne Gretzky about it, you spend a lot of time debating with things like who your third-line defensive paring is going to be? Who are the 12th and 13th forwards? It's also going to be difficult [deciding] who that third goaltender is going to be. That's … [what] we will spend the most time on.
CBCSports.ca: You obviously know Mike Babcock well with your time in Detroit. Why was he the right choice for head coach of this team?
CBCSports.ca: You have so many captains to choose from, are you looking for any specific qualities in a leader?
Yzerman: Not really. Probably all of these guys are going to be captain or assistants at some point from their respective teams. They're all kind of natural leaders so we'll wait until we pick the team and then decide upon who the right choices are for the captaincy. I think it's important that we have, in this type of event, quality veteran guys. Not only good players but really professional, veteran players that have tons of experience and if things get hectic or intense, they can handle them and keep the team focused and grounded. We'll look at a group of veterans to be the leaders of the club.
CBCSports.ca: Gretzky and his staff were heavily criticized for having too many veterans and not enough younger players in 2006. Will this team have a better mix?
Yzerman: I think this team will have different faces on it just because it's four years later, and the Rick Nash's and Sidney Crosby's are four years older, and it's become their time. Some of the other players have either retired because of injuries, or they weren't at that level anymore. So, it's just the natural aging process, I guess, that this is going to be a younger team. But I place value in having some veteran players on the team. We're going to take the best players, but in that group, I'm quite confident that there will be veteran guys that have some experience and are top players. You'll see some of the young guys. They're just too good, and they'll be ready to play.
CBCSport.ca: Now that you are at the helm, what lessons do you take from the 2006 disappointment that could help you for Vancouver?
Yzerman: I don't take anything for granted. I look at that 2006 team, and it was the same team that won the World Cup of '04 in Toronto. I look at it that there has to be some value placed on who is playing well currently and leading up to the tournament. Most of all, I've learned through the last three Olympics that anything can happen. So, we'll do everything possible in terms of preparation for our scouting, our preparation for our own club and getting ready for each game.
That's what it comes down to. When you get into a quarter-final game against any of these countries, their goaltenders can stone anybody, and you can lose a game. So, we take nothing for granted, but we'll be well prepared, we'll be well organized, and hopefully, we'll get lucky and come out with a gold medal.