Canada’s would-be Olympians have a ball at orientation camp
Olympic notebook: Lone ‘on-ice’ session a vigorous game of ball hockey
Rick Nash, from Brampton, Ont., runs with the ball during a ball hockey training session at the Canadian national men’s team orientation camp in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Aug. 26, 2013.
Photograph by: Jeff McIntosh, THE CANADIAN PRESS
CALGARY — Pure Canadiana, it was: $1.5 billion worth of elite professional hockey players wearing gloves and running shoes, carrying sticks, hitting a little orange ball around on an international-size fiberglas surface adorned by red and blue lines and faceoff dots.
A little ball hockey in late August, attended by 45 players, five coaches and several dozen local and national and even U.S. media taking notes and writing down line combinations and defence pairings as if they meant something.
And maybe they did, but we’re not going to know for sure for at least four months, when the Canadian team is picked for the Sochi Olympics.
Head coach Mike Babcock yelled instructions with mid-season intensity as the players trotted around, practising breakouts and break-ins and power plays in the lone “on-ice” session of the three-day orientation camp, which ends Tuesday at the Canada Olympic Park.
It was almost comical to watch, but the players took it seriously.
“I haven’t really picked up a ball hockey (stick) or played road hockey for a while,” said Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith. “To see some of these other guys, it’s kind of funny seeing Crosby and Weber, those guys are hitting an orange ball like we’re kids again.
“This is a workout. I haven’t run this much in a long time.”
Most took the line combinations and defence pairs with a grain of salt.
“I’m sure they have somewhat of an idea right now, but at the same time, every single spot is available. I don’t think there’s too many guys who have a spot locked up,” said L.A. Kings defenceman Drew Doughty, who was paired with the Rangers’ Marc Staal.
“I don’t think you’ll know who your partner is until the first day (in Russia).”
Keith didn’t play with his usual Blackhawks partner, Brent Seabrook, but with Nashville’s Shea Weber, which would be Canada’s top pair if it stays. Seabrook was paired with Dion Phaneuf. He didn’t take his separation from Keith as a bad sign.
“I think they know we have good chemistry and play together a lot so they just want to look at some different things,” he said. “There’s a lot of time left. They’re going to be evaluating how people fit, and who you fit with and how you start the season. That’ll be more important than the pairings and lines you see this week.”
Still, there were some fascinating combinations, like a lethal-looking young line of John Tavares playing between Logan Couture and Steven Stamkos.
But the absence of Claude Giroux, who skipped the camp to rehab a hand injury, made most of the lines speculative at best. He’s virtually a lock to be on the team.
TOUGH TIMES: Giroux was joined on the no-show list by San Jose’s Joe Thornton, who elected to stay home because his two-month-old son River was hospitalized. River is believed to be out of danger, but Thornton evidently was shaken by the incident.
“Our wives are best friends. He made the right decision, you got to stay home. Family is the most important thing,” said Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle.
DREAM COME TRUE: The absence of two camp invitees, both forwards, opened a space for a stand-in, and Dylan Walchuk, who plays for the University of Calgary Dinosaurs, got the call to come out and play on a line with Taylor Hall and Jordan Staal.
“That's the best story about this whole thing so far. Life is about what you make of it,” said Babcock. “(Coach) Mark Howell and the U of C Dinosaurs helped us out. We didn't have this (international-size) sheet, we had a different sheet. 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 is when you do good things, good things happen. He did a good job. He didn't have to. We phoned him last night and said, 'Do you want to come?' Great, and his stall was next to Crosby, and he was good out here.”
"It took me about 10 minutes to settle down a little bit,” said Walchuk, the former Spokane Chiefs junior. “It was sweet just seeing those guys you see on TV all the time and getting to play with them. They're all good guys. It's an experience I'll never forget.
"I walked in the dressing room and I looked at the two stalls beside me and it was Sidney Crosby and Brad Marchand. That was pretty exciting for me. I couldn't sit beside two better guys, I don't think."
Walchuk said he might abscond with a pair of Team Canada shoes.
"I want to get something. They're pretty nice shoes. I'm going to hop the glass and get out of here.”
PADDING THE STATS: The goaltenders had the easiest time of it during the ball-hockey sessions. No hard shots were taken, though Roberto Luongo and Carey Price each took one off the ankle and limped around a bit for a few seconds.
“My save percentage wasn’t great out here today,” laughed Price.
Phoenix goalie Mike Smith, who was invited to the camp by the same GM, Steve Yzerman, who waived him and finally let him walk away as a free agent from Tampa two years ago, said there were no hard feelings on his part.
“I hadn’t really deserved the chance to stick around. There were bumps along the road there in Tampa, and I never really found my niche,” he said.
After a brilliant 2011-12 season in Phoenix, both he and the Coyotes struggled this past season.
“It was just a different year (with the lockout),” he said. “You look around the league at the top-notch goalies and I think it was a lot harder for the goalies to adjust coming back after four months off than it was for players. The practice time we missed ... it’s one thing to come to camp and kind of feel your way into the season, but to kind of get thrown to the wolves right off the bat there in January, and kind of playing shinny for four months doesn’t really help your fundamental abilities.”
LITTLE BIG MAN: One of the feel-good stories of camp is the likelihood of Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis making the Olympic team at age 38. The greying Tampa forward, who played for Canada in Turin in 2006, didn’t get the call in Vancouver, but he’s been playing some of the best hockey of his life.
“These kinds of things, they help your confidence as you get older, they rejuvenate you. They quiet the criticism,” he said Monday.
Being passed over in 2010 “was a motivation, really. I thought, ‘I’m going to try and make it really hard for them to keep me off the next one.’ But, life is full of disappointments. It’s how you respond how you get back up from them. Don’t feel sorry for yourself. It’s not going to get you anywhere.”
He’s no lock to make it, but he believes in himself.
“Yesterday, I was answering questions about how I was an underdog coming into this camp. I said, ‘Thank God I have a lot of confidence.’ I don’t see myself as an underdog.”
LONG SHOT: Burnaby-born Karl Alzner of the Washington Capitals, who played junior here with the Calgary Hitmen, knows he doesn’t exactly fit the speedy, puck-mover prototype that’s likely to be in vogue on defence for Canada on the big ice surface.
“It is weird, I'm out there doing power-play reps with these guys and just knowing what they do, the plays they make, the confidence they have, the poise, is amazing,” he said. “It's not something I've brought to the game, even when I was a power-play guy in junior. It's just not the way I've played.
“It's nice to try and fill an area that not too many defencemen enjoy to do. Most like to jump into the play and chip in offensively, but I've always been happy with staying back, shutting guys down and trying to frustrate them.”
Does he think it can get him on the team?
“You think so. You hope so. You'd like to think a team should have a defenceman like that on it. I'm hoping it's the same thinking the coaches have here.”
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