Yzerman shows tough side naming Team Canada

January 7, 2014, 5:10 PM

TORONTO – Only two men know exactly what was said during a phone call where there must not have been much to say. But it didn’t take a whole lot of imagination to figure out how difficult it was for Steve Yzerman to tell Marty St. Louis that he hadn’t been invited to the Olympics.

There was history there, for sure, beginning with Yzerman’s decision to leave the shifty winger off Team Canada’s squad for the 2010 Vancouver Games. If that was a tough choice, this must have been excruciating.

In the years since, Yzerman took over the Tampa Bay Lightning and watched St. Louis become his team captain – not to mention the NHL’s oldest scoring champion – one who has capably kept the Lightning afloat since Steven Stamkos went down with a broken leg in November.

Given all that, it seemed improbable that St. Louis would be overlooked again. Yet he was.

"He was disappointed, obviously," Yzerman said after ending the national debate by announcing Canada’s 25-man Olympic roster.

It was telling that Yzerman chose to phone St. Louis late Monday night after the final decisions were rendered. The rest of the players in the Olympic conversation weren’t notified one way or the other until just before the official announcement came on Tuesday morning.

Team Canada’s brain trust spent eight hours debating the last few selections and they centred almost entirely on the depth forwards. St. Louis was in the mix right up until the very end, according to sources, but didn’t garner enough support from the six-member management team and head coach Mike Babcock, who also sat in on Monday’s meeting.

As executive director, Yzerman could theoretically have stepped in and over-ruled but he chose instead to go with the will of the group. Twelve hours later, the strain on his face was evident as he discussed what it might mean for his relationship with one of Tampa’s franchise pillars moving forward.

"That is no disrespect to any player, including Marty St. Louis," said Yzerman. "He’s a tremendous player, he’s a tremendous person. I’m hopeful that we can get through this and continue to play. He’s a guy that I want to finish his career (in Tampa). I’m hopeful that somehow we can be fortunate enough to win a Stanley Cup. He’s going to play for as long as he chooses and (I hope) that we’re going to have success there.

"There’s not much I can say – I can’t apologize. We’ve got to make these decisions."

If Canada ends up winning gold next month in Sochi, we’ll probably look back on Yzerman’s lack of loyalty as a big reason why. In addition to St. Louis, he left off centres Joe Thornton, Eric Staal and Mike Richards – all of whom played on the victorious 2010 Olympic squad he assembled – plus Logan Couture, Claude Giroux and James Neal, among others.

Outside of the selection of experienced winger Rick Nash, who has struggled for the New York Rangers following an early-season concussion, there was very little evidence of rewarding past performance. Hockey Canada identified that as a fatal flaw of the 2006 team that crashed and burned at the Turin Games and Yzerman’s management group made an effort not to repeat it.

What they attempted to do instead was focus on speed up front in an effort to create a dangerous attack team that is difficult to contain on the larger international ice surface. The selection process wasn’t about identifying the best 14 Canadian forwards, according to Yzerman, "but the right 14."

That ended up including Sidney Crosby’s much-discussed winger, Chris Kunitz, who found himself on the bubble despite putting up big offensive numbers while playing with No. 87 over the last couple seasons. The other forwards set to make their Olympic debuts are Stamkos, John Tavares, Jeff Carter, Patrick Sharp, Jamie Benn and Matt Duchene, who at age 23 will be the youngest member of the team.

Yzerman believes that group of wingers will be faster than their Team Canada counterparts from the 2010 Games and hopes they can draw off a collection of centres that already have gold medals in their possession: Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron. Wingers Corey Perry and Patrick Marleau are the other holdovers up front.

After months of scouting games and debating players on conference calls and in face-to-face meetings, winnowing Canada’s impressive group of forwards down to just 14 names proved most difficult. From all accounts, it was a tedious undertaking.

"The decisions, the late-night wrangling, it’s like you go over things four, five, six, seven times," said Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, the lone first-time member of Team Canada’s management group. "Is this the right reason? Is this the right guy? We talked about four or five guys at the end, and you have second thoughts, and you just got to be firm on what you believe, and the fit. For me it was the most difficult exercise — it was very revealing, it was fun, but last night was difficult.

"And these are hard, hard decisions on really, really good players."

All of which brings us back to St. Louis, the most glaring omission of the bunch. He’s a Stanley Cup winner, a two-time Art Ross champion and the top-scoring NHL player over the last four seasons combined. Ultimately, he was judged not to be quite fast enough for this group.

For Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, Yzerman’s tough decision on St. Louis was a sterling example of his deep commitment to the national program. "There were no egos involved in this process," Nicholson told Sportsnet.

It’s almost certainly now going to leave Yzerman with some damage control to perform in Tampa, the kind of which he is at least a little bit familiar after being cut from two Canada Cup teams back in his own playing days.

Eventually, he believes the sting will wear off for his captain. But it sounds like it will take some time.

"It was a little emotional when he got the news," Stamkos told reporters in Winnipeg of St. Louis. "It’s tough. I don’t know what more you can do or expect from him to be able to make this team. For me, it’s tough to see Marty as upset as he was.

"He may not admit it, but he’s worked extremely hard to try to get an opportunity to put himself in the mix."

When it came time to make the tough decisions, St. Louis was right where he wanted to be. But he still didn’t end up getting the call he was hoping for.

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