Canada camp: Babcock helped by MSU’s Izzo

Head coach Mike Babcock, from Saskatoon, enlisted the help of Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo in order to prepare for Team Canada's orientation camp. (CP/Jeff McIntosh)

CALGARY – Insuring an estimated $1.5 billion roster against injury was deemed too expensive to allow the Team Canada hopefuls to skate, so they put down the roller hockey floor and did their drills with an orange ball, runners and gloves.

The walk-through was a foreign concept to a hockey coach like Mike Babcock, so he called on a couple of experts — legendary Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo and Detroit Lions quarterbacks coach Todd Downey — for some advice.

“I don’t know if the guys at Hockey Canada know those two guys,” Babcock said. “I mean, Tom Izzo is a Hall of Fame basketball coach who wins year after year after year. He’s a serial winner, always in the Final Four. When I phoned him, he was thrilled to talk to me and had a bunch of ideas for me. He was able to help me understand the process so we could present something to the players so they could learn but also, so I was confident enough that we could do this.

“And then Todd Downey, the quarterback coach of the Lions, he was the same. He was fantastic. Actually, he was brilliant,” Babcock said. “It’s easy for me to come out and run stuff when you’re on the ice. That’s what I do for a living. This isn’t what I do for a living.”

The goalies wore their blocker and catcher, and held a stick. No gear, no mask.

“My save percentage wasn’t great out here today,” laughed Montreal’s Carey Price.

A Canadian kid’s dream come true

With Claude Giroux (hand injury) and Joe Thornton (sick child) not here, Babcock came up short on filling his lines. So they called in Dylan Walchuk, a University of Calgary winger who worked alongside Taylor Hall and Jordan Staal

“Best story about this whole (orientation camp) so far. Life is about what you make of it,” Babcock said. “(U of C coach) Mark Howell helped us out by getting our coaches organized. We put Mark’s team through the paces (of drills the actual NHLers would see later) and that kid was the best kid on the ice by a million miles. They’d just had a team party, a double-kegger the night before I got there, too.

“When Joe couldn’t come … we phoned (Walchuk), asked if he’d like to come. He does and his stall is next to Crosby. He wears his stuff and he was good out there,” Babcock said.

“Every Canadian kid would die to do this,” said Walchuk, a former Vernon Viper and Spokane Chief. “Maybe I’ll see myself on TV tonight if I’m lucky.”

Said Hall: “He was on my line, and we didn’t get into any trouble from the coach, so it was good.”

Canada’s goalie race up in the air

If there are some so-called locks to make this roster, none of them are in goal. Have a bad start to the NHL season and you can kiss goodbye any chance of tending the ol’ twine for Team Canada.

“It’s wide-open like everybody’s been saying,” Montreal Canadiens’ netminder Carey Price said. “Everybody has an equal opportunity to earn their spot. … They’re going to pick the guy who’s playing the best. They’re going to take the guy that’s on top of his game and who they feel gives them the best chance of winning.”

“All the guys that are here are capable of making this team,” said hopeful Mike Smith, who just re-signed down in Phoenix. “I think a lot of guys who aren’t here are, too.”

Cam Ward is the one name floating around who is not here, but could play his way into Canada’s net come late December, when the 25-man roster will be announced. But it’s clear when you look at the United States, Finland and Sweden rosters, Canada does not appear to have the strongest netminding in the world as we close in on Sochi.

“Used to be Canada had good goalies and no one else really could compete with that,” Smith said. “Goalies have gotten better right across the board, and I don’t think Canada has dropped off. I think we’ve just … there hasn’t been that guy, but I think Roberto’s done pretty well for himself.”

Kings’ Richards hopes to add to trophy case

Mike Richards won Olympic gold in 2010 and a Stanley Cup in 2012 with the Los Angeles Kings. Now he’s back for more, in the prime of his career at age 28.

“They’re a lot different,” Richards said of the two accomplishments. “With the Stanley Cup you do 10 months of grinding with the same team. The injuries and everything you go through to get to the point of winning. With this it’s so much pressure and getting together as a group in a short time. There’s so much pride involved in playing for your country. But both are special to me.

“Anytime you get a chance to win, that’s why you play. The goals and assists are nice but you want to be remembered for titles. When you’re done you’re not going to have your goals in a trophy case but I’ve got my rings and my medals. That’s what people ask to see.”

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