Head coach Mike Babcock, from Saskatoon, Sask., directs a ball hockey training session at the Canadian national men's team orientation camp in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Aug. 26, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Photograph by: Jeff McIntosh, THE CANADIAN PRESS
CALGARY — Orientation (noun): A usually general or lasting direction of thought, inclination, or interest; An adjustment or adaptation to a new environment, situation, custom, or set of ideas.
All righty, then. Consider the 45 players in the running for spots on Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey team oriented.
Three days of informational meetings, video work, ball-hockey teaching sessions, a little golf and possibly a cold pint or two ought to have had them all on approximately the same page Tuesday evening as they left Hockey Canada’s skateless camp at the Markin MacPhail Centre on the grounds of Canada Olympic Park.
It was definitely an adjustment. It may or may not be lasting.
But if it all goes in one ear and out the other before the team arrives in Russia in a little over five months, it won’t be because head coach Mike Babcock wasn’t enthusiastic enough, or didn’t try his damnedest to get around the absence of actual on-ice practice and scrimmages.
This was a bigger challenge for the staff than any of the coaches or managers would have chosen, but it was impossible to hold normal practices because of player insurance costs Hockey Canada CEO Bob Nicholson estimated at $1.2 million.
Of course, it would have cost National Hockey League team owners little more than pocket change to chip in and cover the premiums, but to most of them, the Olympics are an annoyance, interrupting their seasons and making their product look bad by comparison.
So Babcock had to be innovative, and he was.
“Obviously I have never done this before,” the Detroit Red Wings coach said of the ball-hockey teaching drills he and assistant coaches Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff, Claude Julien and Ralph Krueger put the team through Monday and Tuesday.
“We’ve put a lot of planning into it. I spent a lot of time talking to people to gather the information, Tom Izzo in particular with Michigan State basketball. He talks about their walk-throughs (being) part of the reason that they’ve been to six Final Fours in the last 15 years.
“Todd Downing is a quarterback coach with the Lions. He talked about the plays they walk through each and every day and the muscle memory and the timing and spacing that’s going on. This is a big sheet, and guys aren’t used to it. It’s even bigger when you can’t move very fast. But I thought it was a good teaching tool.
“The other thing is when you’ve got 23 guys on your team, you usually got to teach 23 different ways. Everybody learns different, so when you see it on video, it’s one way you see it, in a book, it’s another way. You’ve got a posting on the wall, you walk through it again and then you talk about it. To me what we’re trying to do is get them to understand the way we’re going to play, so they’re comfortable with it when they arrive in Sochi.”
“One of the good things about him as a coach is he’s very detailed and very specific,” said Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. “He requires attention from all his players and you saw it right away. Guys were listening and paying attention to detail. When the team gets to Sochi there’s no time for adjustment. Guys have to be ready to play the right way and right away.”
Anyone who came here expecting actual news — like line combinations — left disappointed, though we all wrote them down to compare with how the lineup shakes out once the 25 Olympians are chosen at the new year. Clues were there, if you squinted a little, but nothing written in stone — and everything we think we saw here is subject to hot starts, bad starts and injuries to stars, which are far more frequent than they used to be.
There’s still no clear picture of who plays on the wings with Sidney Crosby.
His Pittsburgh linemate Chris Kunitz might be one, based on established chemistry — and it seems to be accepted wisdom that Crosby is not easy to play with — but there were nearly double the required number of players here, and placing Kunitz among the best 14 forwards is a stretch.
With only a couple of days’ practice time in Russia before the team has to suit up in Sochi for its first game, ready-made duos or trios are tempting, but Yzerman and Babcock need look no further back than the last Olympics to find evidence that simply transplanting a hot NHL line to the Olympic ice — remember Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau-Dany Heatley lighting it up in San Jose, pre-Vancouver? — is not necessarily the way to go.
On defence, the top six looks as though it is firmly fixed: Duncan Keith, Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Marc Staal, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester. Two others will also make it, possibly a veteran power play quarterback like Dan Boyle or a P.K. Subban.
The forward lines will feature a lot of centres and begin with the usual suspects: Crosby, Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and probably Claude Giroux, who was absent here, but somewhere in that mix will surely be John Tavares, Patrice Bergeron, Steven Stamkos, Eric Staal, Rick Nash, probably Logan Couture, and after that it’s up in the air. Patrick Sharp, Martin St. Louis, Corey Perry, Jeff Carter, Matt Duchene, Jordan Eberle, Andrew Ladd ... lots of possibilities, and no bad choices.
Roberto Luongo and Carey Price would be the early choices to start and back up, or vice versa, in goal but that’s one position that’s going to be decided on the ice, pre-Christmas.
Both Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman and Hitchcock pointed out lessons learned the hard way from negative experiences on international-size ice, and since Krueger, late of the Edmonton Oilers, made a considerable reputation out of coaching a series of Swiss teams that thwarted Canada, including beating them at the Olympics in Turin, bringing him onto the staff to aid with the nuances of the big ice surface and pre-scout opponents can’t hurt.
The old aggressive forecheck game Canada loves to play doesn’t work, Yzerman said, because “the Europeans just sit back and wait. There’s a lot of space out there and you can spend a lot of time skating places and getting there just a second late, taking yourself out of the play.
“With the Europeans, everything’s back to the net. They give you the outside all day long, you’ll have the puck on the cycle the entire game. It’s hard to get shots through.”
“I think the sucker play is you have more space, you have more time, so the tendency is to take more time. It’s the big mistake,” Hitchcock said as the camp opened. “When we play well as Canadians, we play fast defensively and even faster offensively. It’s the sucker play if you make that mistake on big ice, you end up being slow and you get covered over quickly defensively. We can’t lose perspective of how we play. We’ve got to carry that onto the big ice game and not lose it from the 85-foot game we play naturally.”
The hope is that all the ideas and terminology filtered through, and will stay in the memory banks.
“We’re going to have the same retention we did last time, without any question,” Babcock said. “What we’re not getting out of this camp is the evaluation part. We get everything else.
“They’re going to go back to their teams and they’re not going to think about any of this stuff. But when you turn the light bulbs on for them again, the terminology, the patterns, what’s expected, it’s all going to be the same. They’re smart guys ... and when they get to Sochi, they’ll be way ahead.”
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