'We're going to find a way': Colliton embracing challenge as head coach of Canadian men's Olympic hockey team
37-year-old replaces injured Claude Julien with just 11 days until 1st game in Beijing
Jeremy Colliton knows a thing or two about taking over for a legend, given his experience filling the National Hockey League head coaching job vacated by Joel Quenneville in Chicago.
Not one to lack confidence, Colliton seemed undaunted Sunday — just like he did back in 2018 in the Windy City — when Hockey Canada announced his promotion from assistant coach to head coach of the Canadian men's Olympic hockey team.
This time, Colliton, 37, takes over for Claude Julien, a Stanley Cup champion and Jack Adams Award winner as the NHL's best coach. And this time, Colliton has all of 11 days until Team Canada's first Olympic match against Germany at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
No pressure, or anything.
"We lost one of the most experienced coaches working right now," Colliton said of Julien in a news conference held via Zoom on Sunday. "We're facing some adversity and we're going to respond and we're going to pull together. The players are going to come together. The staff is going to come together, and we're going to find a way."
According to Team Canada general manager Shane Doan, Julien fractured ribs when he slipped on ice during a team-building exercise at a pre-Olympic training camp in Switzerland. On the advice of the medical staff, the 61-year-old Julien is unable to fly to Beijing due to the injury.
All along, Doan expected possible roster movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility of any player or staff member testing positive before or during the tournament.
He did not foresee a mishap like this.
"It was kind of a bizarre situation," Doan said. "It happens. And when it does, you just deal with it and keep going."
Aside from star centre Eric Staal, Julien was arguably the biggest name on the Canadian men's team. Julien's attention to detail on defence — along with the expectation of his forwards to back check and be positionally sound — felt like a good match for a team with little time to gel.
Now it's up to Colliton, who was fired by Chicago in November, to turn a collection of Canadians playing professionally in Europe, Russia and the American Hockey League — along with youngsters Owen Power, Mason McTavish and Devon Levi — into Olympic champions.
"This isn't going to be the last bump in the road, likely, that we run into," said Colliton, of Blackie, Alta. "We've got some guys with a lot of NHL experience. We have some great European pros who've been around. We have some returnees from the last Olympic team who know what to expect and know what it's all about. And we have some young guys with a ton of enthusiasm and talent, who want to make a difference.
"So that's exciting, how it all stacks up."
The NHL officially pulled out of the Olympics in December due to a record number of players, coaches and staff testing positive for the coronavirus. At that time, Canada was the early favourite for gold with a stacked roster that included Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Alex Pietrangelo.
In 2018, with no NHLers in Pyeongchang, Russia won gold, Germany surprised with silver and Canada claimed bronze.
This time, Russia, competing as the Russian Olympic Committee due to doping violations, is favoured to repeat as champions. From there, it's an open field with Finland, Sweden, Canada, the Czech Republic and the United States in the mix.
(The most-recognizable names on Team Canada include Staal, Power, Toronto Maple Leaf prospect Josh Ho-Sang, former Montreal Canadiens forward David Desharnais and former Arizona Coyotes defenceman Jason Demers.)
'Great energy' at 1st practice together
Given the time crunch, Colliton said has no intention of changing up the playing system Julien and the staff had devised. Sunday's practice marked the first time all the players were on the ice together due to staggered arrivals at training camp.
"Great practice, great energy," said Colliton, who went 87-92-26 in three years with Chicago. "The quality was really good, so we're looking to build on that now."
Doan said the players can expect excellent communication from Colliton and no confusion on where things stand.
"He's just an organized guy that knows exactly what he wants," Doan said. "He's detail orientated. He's somebody that's decisive in how he explains things, which I think is so important. He knows what he wants his players to do."
While Julien won't join the team in Beijing, Colliton fully expects his phone to light up with texts over the next three weeks from one of the most respected coaches in the game.
He will definitely want to read those messages given what's at stake.
"No doubt, he's going to want to weigh in," Colliton said of Julien. "And he should. He has so much experience and a track record of winning. And he's invested a lot in this process already.
"He did a great job, I thought, of setting a plan and getting the ball rolling as far as preparing the team. And we're just going to keep going."