Team Canada prepares by playing ball-hockey

Hockey Canada began its preparations for the bigger ice surface at the Sochi Olympics with a ball-hockey walk-through on a boarded up rink. (CP/Jeff McIntosh)

CALGARY — Skating deemed too risky, the Canadian Olympic men’s hockey team combined ball hockey with a football team’s walk-through at orientation camp Monday.

Canadian head coach Mike Babcock split the 45 players — invited forwards Claude Giroux and Joe Thornton were absent — into two groups.

Dressed in sneakers, shorts and T-shirts, the players alternated between dressing room chalk talks and jogging/walking on a boarded-up, Olympic-sized ice surface at the Markin MacPhail Centre at Canada Olympic Park.

Canada’s top NHL players set an easy pace, but their competitive instincts occasionally took over with bursts of speed. Pad-less Montreal Canadians goaltender Carey Price jokingly hid behind the netting as the ball rocketed wide of the goalposts.

"My save percentage wasn’t great out here today," Price joked.

San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture skidded on his stomach in the corner, but the players appeared to emerge from the drills unscathed.

The price tag to insure a total of $1.5 billion in player contracts against injury at this camp was too high for Hockey Canada.

Babcock and most of the players downplayed the risk of a sprained ankle or tweaked knee chasing a rubber ball on a rubbery surface, although Los Angeles Kings forward Michael Richards pointed out the hockey players aren’t necessarily natural runners.

"I actually thought there was more risk doing this than there was skating. I skate more than I run," Richards said, adding that the drills were useful.

"We watched video and saw what the coaching staff was trying to put on the ice and we came out here, and even though we’re not skating at full speed, you’re running through it and walking through it. You do get that sense of what they want."

For Babcock, the importance of planting seeds of knowledge for the 2014 Winter Olympic in Sochi, Russia, outweighed any possible contradiction in playing ball hockey instead of skating.

"No one got killed," Babcock said. "It wasn’t hard. No one got hurt. There was no wear and tear on the body."

Babcock, who coached Canada to gold in men’s hockey at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, consulted Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo and Detroit Lions quarterback coach Todd Downing for ideas on how to engage the players’ game brains without skates and equipment during orientation camp.

"Tom Izzo is a Hall of Fame basketball coach who wins year after year after year," Babcock said. "He 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.

"It’s easy for me to come out and run stuff when I’m the ice. That’s what I do for a living. This isn’t what I do for a living. I didn’t know how it was going to be. We thought this was an excellent day for our team and coaching staff in taking a step."

The Detroit Red Wings head coach entertained the notion a walk-through could perhaps replace the game-day skate in the NHL.

"Why not? You’ll see the Red Wings doing this in their hotel one day, for sure, to work on the power-play," Babcock said. "The National Hockey League’s 82 games and it’s a grind.

"You know how much work this was for these guys to lay down this floor and put the lines on it? It would be way easier to come here and skate. Let’s not kid ourselves. I’d rather be skating. I’d learn way more about these players. But it was fun and it keeps you guys entertained."

Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers has an injured finger and withdrew from camp last week. Thornton of the San Jose Sharks isn’t in Calgary because of a personal family matter.

Hockey Canada recruited University of Calgary forward Dylan Walchuk to complete a forward line with Taylor Hall of the Edmonton Oilers and Jordan Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Babcock insisted his line combinations and defensive pairings Monday were no an indicator of his plans for Sochi.

"Don’t read into anything that happened here today," the head coach warned.

So for what it’s worth, the rest of the forward line combos Monday were Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews between Eric Staal and Rick Nash. Andrew Ladd and Corey Perry flanked centre Ryan Getzlaf. Richards centred a line of Martin St. Louis and Jeff Carter.

John Tavares was between Couture and Steven Stamkos. Sidney Crosby had Penguins teammate Chris Kunitz on his left and Patrick Sharp of the Blackhawks on his right. Matt Duchene joined wingers Milan Lucic and James Neal. Patrice Bergeron had Brad Marchand and Jordan Eberle on his wings.

The defensive pairings were Duncan Keith-Shea Weber; Marc Staal-Drew Doughty; Jay Bouwmeester-P.K. Subban; Marc Methot-Kris Letang; Marc-Edouard Vlasic-Danny Boyle; Karl Alzner-Mike Green; Dion Phaneuf-Brent Seabrook.

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