THE CANADIAN PRESS
HELSINKI, Finland — One face stood out among the crowd.
As the Canadian team was put through its paces deep in the underground practice rink at Hartwall Arena on Sunday afternoon, Mike Babcock carefully charted everything happening on the ice. With his Detroit Red Wings making an early exit from the NHL playoffs, Babcock decided to travel to the IIHF World Hockey Championship to keep tabs on the Canadian team.
It raised the obvious question: Is he in line to reprise his role as Olympic coach in 2014?
"I wouldn’t read too much into that," said Babcock.
He’s already publicly stated an interest in the job, telling The Canadian Press in a March interview that he would "relish the opportunity" to try and add another Olympic gold to the one he won in Vancouver.
The Sochi Games are on the minds of many at this world championship. Not only will the groups for that tournament be set once this one wraps up, but players are looking to make a strong impression on the many influential onlookers taking it in — such as Babcock and Kevin Lowe, the Canadian general manager.
"That’s a big reason why a lot of us are here," said forward Jordan Eberle. "You want to get that opportunity to play and you know this is a showcase. A big part of this tournament is for (Olympic) placings.
"You want to give yourself the best opportunity to win a gold medal (in Sochi) and it all starts with winning a gold medal here."
There is still a long road to travel before that happens.
The Canadian team seemed to be in good spirits a day after losing 5-4 in overtime to the United States in its second round robin game. Coach Brent Sutter shook up his forward lines at practice and spent a fair amount of time discussing systems at the whiteboard.
He also planned to make a change in goal for Monday’s game against France by starting Devan Dubnyk.
Sutter was able to see the positive side of an early loss that shouldn’t be too costly in the grand scheme of things, especially if Canada recovers and gets stronger as he expects.
"Teams that have success usually have to deal with some adversity along the way," said Sutter.
More adversity arrived on Sunday when it was determined Marc-Edouard Vlasic was done for the tournament because of a right leg injury suffered against the U.S. The trainers have been the busiest members of the team so far with Alex Burrows (concussion) and Marc Methot (groin) nursing injuries and Vlasic following P.K. Subban on an early flight home.
Babcock is plenty familiar with the challenge currently facing the Canadian team, which is under heavy pressure to come together as players slide in and out of the lineup. He’s the only coach ever to guide a team to a world junior title, world championship gold, Olympic gold and the Stanley Cup.
"There’s good players here," said Babcock. "Their competitive juices will really get flowing as the tournament goes on and in the end they’ve got to be prepared to lay it all on the line.
"If you get organized and you all figure out how to play and then you find your game within the team game, in the structure of Canada, then in the end you have a chance to be good."
It’s tough to get a read on this Canadian team so far. Stocked with an impressive roster of players, it faced a tough opening to the tournament by playing on back-to-back days against Slovakia and the U.S.
Success or failure will likely start to be determined late in the coming week, when Canada faces Switzerland (Wednesday) and Finland (Friday) in tough games that should better clarify how things will shape up for the quarter-finals.
With so much on the line — both individually and as a team — the quality of play should get better.
Babcock made it clear that he’ll be watching the Canadian team closely before heading back home on Saturday. He’s hoping to soak up as much from the experience as he possibly can.
"To me, that’s how you learn — talking to people and being around people — so you’ve got a chance to be getting better," said Babcock. "To me, that’s what it’s all about. That’s where the fun is, the fun’s in the journey. The fun’s in trying to get better and being as good as you’re capable of being.
"That’s why you’re in everything."