Spector: Team Canada shaping up with few locks

(Julie Jacobson/AP)
August 22, 2013, 9:27 AM

Bob Nicholson has been escorting Canadian hockey teams to the Olympics since 1998 in Nagano, Japan.

And the numbers — all but one of them, anyhow — just keep getting bigger and bigger.

“Insurance issues are bigger,” began the CEO for Hockey Canada. “Concussion issues are bigger, and we pay so much attention to that now.

“Our payroll (for the men’s team) is around $1.5 billion dollars. In ‘98, we didn’t have the word ‘billions’ in our vocabulary.”

Naturally, with each Olympics the numbers surrounding Canada’s men’s team go north. Except, as we noted, for one.

How many players are locks to make the Canadian team for Sochi in February?

“By my count, I’m at 11,” said Nicholson. “It’s never been that low. The number has always been higher.”

Alas, a number that’s gone south from years past. Even in-house at Hockey Canada, the number of National Hockey League players who are — barring injury — guaranteed spots in Sochi is a matter of some debate.

“I’d say there are probably, conservatively, maybe 10 locks,” said executive director of Team Canada and Tampa GM Steve Yzerman. “We’re taking 25 players. Ten may be a conservative number, sure, but half of this team is available for guys to make. At least half.”

There are 47 players with invites to Calgary for the Olympic orientation camp which runs Sunday through Tuesday out of Hockey Canada’s home at Winsport, the Winter Sports Institute formally known as CODA. They’ll meet with Team Canada coaches, drug people from the International Olympic Committee, get a round of golf in, do some bonding, and fulfill various media commitments over the three days.

Because of the extraordinary costs of insuring this $1.5-billion roster, it just doesn’t make financial sense for them to skate. Most other countries’ Olympic teams are also staying off the ice, to save insurance costs.

“Even when we went on the ice in 2010, and 2006 when I played,” Yzerman said, “for me it was really more about the info. Even the on-ice portion.

“I wasn’t using it as player assessment. It was more to work with the coaches, get an initial understanding of what we’re going to try to accomplish on the power play, how we’re going to play in neutral zone, defensive zone … stuff like that. This time, we’ll do it in meetings.”

Added Nicholson: “Who will make the team is who’s playing well in November and December. Stevie will tell you that.”

The locks are players like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Shea Weber, and Steven Stamkos. But on top of the 47 names attending next week’s orientation camp, there could be as many as 47 more names added to a list that Hockey Canada must submit to the IOC by the end of October.

Remember, there are literally zero practices for this team before the players hop on the plane Feb. 9. Even after they reach Russia, head coach Mike Babcock will be lucky if he gets in three workouts before Canada opens against Norway at the Bolshoy Ice Dome on Thursday, Feb. 13.

So it is all about two things: Being healthy when the NHL closes its doors on Feb. 8 prior to the Olympic break, and being among the best 25 Canadian players through the first 50 games of the NHL season.

“Someone is going to be hurt who is a lock. It seems to happen every year,” Yzerman noted. “Ryan Getzlaf had a sprained ankle just prior to Vancouver. We ended up flying Jeff Carter in and made the decision just before the first game. We gave Ryan every opportunity to go — it was one of those decisions. He was a little nicked up, and I don’t know if we rolled the dice, but we made a decision on Ryan. Luckily he stayed healthy.”

Sochi is too far away to bring in a taxi squad. But the roster has also been expanded by two spots to 25 players, so depth should not be an issue.

Rather than bring all the Canadian players to Toronto, then charter a flight to the Olympics as has been done in the past, the NHL Players’ Association and the league have decided to charter likely four planes to ferry all NHL players to Sochi. Those charters will depart from Los Angeles, Toronto, and probably two from New York, filled with Olympians from various countries.

Those arrangements and a laundry list of others will be discussed beginning Sunday in Calgary.

“From the athlete point of view, this will be logistically the best Olympics I’ve been at,” said Nicholson. “Where the village is, where the venues are, it will be so easy for them. I’m not including families and spectators in that, but for the athletes … the access to their facilities will be second to none.”

Every player will be subjected to Olympic drug testing through the World Anti-Doping Agency, and much instruction will occur in Calgary to make sure no one inadvertently tests positive between now and February. Other than that, the boys will swing a club if they choose to, or get a run or a bike ride in with other Olympic hopefuls.

“What I found in going back to 2002,” Yzerman said, “there were a lot of guys I hadn’t met before. It was a good opportunity to spend some time with guys, and when we showed up together in Salt Lake City, it wasn’t the first time we’d met each other. We’d played golf, spent some time in meetings together. Those sorts of things.”

They’ll hang out in Calgary, then hope they get the real invite when the team is named in the final week of December.

“Our depth is incredible,” marveled Nicholson. “We’ve got 47 players coming in, and there could be players outside that 47 who could make the team.”

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