Tyler Seguin was baffled when his cellphone blinked with a text message the weekend before the NHL trade deadline. It was Marc Bergevin, GM of the Montreal Canadiens, asking him to call.
Seguin was at his house in Dallas hanging out with some friends. The Stars were in the midst of a remarkable regular season that would see them finish first overall in the Western Conference. Seguin was a central part of an offence that led the league in goals scored. So the message caught him off-guard.
“Did I just get traded to Montreal?” he wondered.
Then he recalled a comment his linemate Jamie Benn had made in the dressing room the day before. It was something about expecting a call. Something about the upcoming World Cup of Hockey. Comments he’d dismissed.
But along with being the Canadiens GM, Bergevin was also part of the executive team running the Canadian national squad for the return of the international tournament. It clicked.
Now Seguin was nervously excited. He slipped out of the room and quickly called Bergevin. When he hung up the phone, in his own words, Seguin was flat-out giddy.
He’d just been given a spot on the toughest roster to crack in all of hockey.
No one expects that the World Cup will just be handed to Canada when its third instalment—the first in a dozen years—takes place in Toronto in September. That’s why selecting the players who deserve a spot on Team Canada is one of hockey’s most heavily debated topics across this nation. And earning a spot is an honour that even the most accomplished NHL stars cherish.
For team executives, it was an exercise in selecting the best over the best, knowing that even the slightest misstep would be scrutinized and analyzed ad nauseam. They faced one of the most difficult questions in hockey: How do you improve on the best roster in the game?
Doug Armstrong knew that pressure well when he accepted the role as Team Canada’s general manager in March 2015. The St. Louis Blues GM was part of the group that put together the 2010 and 2014 Canadian Olympic teams. He was given the top job for the World Cup team three months before the position was announced by Hockey Canada.
At the NHL’s annual GMs meeting in March 2015, he gathered with the group of executives who would help him decide how to improve a roster that had won gold at the Sochi Olympics. That group included Detroit’s Ken Holland, Anaheim’s Bob Murray, Los Angeles Kings assistant GM Rob Blake, Scott Salmond from Hockey Canada and Bergevin.
They deliberated for nearly five hours and came away with a list of 32 names, from which they planned to select the final 23-man roster.
The executive group spoke via conference call regularly. They watched the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the 2015 World Championship in the Czech Republic, debating changes to the initial list. The first 16 players had pretty much solidified in their minds before the executive group was officially announced in late June of that year, but the final seven spots would be debated for another 11 months. Those final decisions, Armstrong decided, would depend heavily on the input of the team’s head coach.
He sat down with Mike Babcock at a Boston Pizza in Sarnia, Ont., in early September 2015. Babcock was commuting between Detroit and Toronto, tying up loose ends at his old job coaching the Red Wings. He’d faced huge expectations as the bench boss in the past two Olympics, bringing home gold in both. And he’d just accepted a position with the ever-scrutinized Maple Leafs. Armstrong knew that the pressure of coaching Canada at home in Toronto wouldn’t bother Babcock in the slightest.
After Babcock accepted the offer, Armstrong kept in close contact with the coach, who debated with the rest of a staff that included Joel Quenneville, Bill Peters, Claude Julien and Barry Trotz. Their main message was that for Canada to be successful again, this version of the team would have to be different.
“What won in 2010 and in 2014 won’t be good enough to win here,” Babcock says. “You have to keep evolving.”
Hockey Canada’s brain trust wanted to develop a team that showcased the nation’s full arsenal of offensive power.
“We wanted to use our skill as our backbone, and we wanted to put four good offensive lines together. We wanted 200-foot players who can play against anybody,” says Armstrong. “[We wanted] to make teams adjust to us and not to adjust to teams. So we respect the competition, but we don’t have a checking line and we’re comfortable with any of our players on the ice against anyone.”
There were a lot of players who fit that mould, including a dozen from the Sochi team who were included on the initial 16-man roster in early March. Among the four new additions were goaltenders Braden Holtby and Corey Crawford, to back up the returning Carey Price. Steven Stamkos, who missed Sochi with a broken leg, was also added. The fourth addition was Seguin, who at 24 would be the youngest player on Team Canada. A fifth was added on Aug. 23 when Logan Couture replaced Benn, who is still recovering from core muscle surgery.
That meant that several players who had won gold just two years earlier weren’t guaranteed another chance.
“I actually think if there wasn’t a young-guns team, there’d be other people involved, too,” says Babcock. “That’s just the changing of the guard. It happens every time . . . It’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’ What you try to do is surround yourself with the best people, who are playing the best and give you the best chance to win.”
The remaining seven spots on the roster would be named a couple of months later, after the 2016 World Championship and most of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The management group and coaches were set on including Claude Giroux, who’d been on the bubble for Sochi and had put up an outstanding performance at the worlds in 2015. Brad Marchand, known mostly as a pest in his early career, had emerged as one of the game’s elite forwards and earned a spot, too. Matt Duchene, the youngest player on the Sochi roster, would also return.
But the player who started out furthest down on the initial list was 37-year-old Joe Thornton, who had already played in two Olympics, winning gold in 2010, but was left off the roster in 2014. Several forward positions from the Sochi roster opened up naturally due to age—Martin St. Louis retired, while Chris Kunitz and Patrick Marleau are past their best-before dates. But Thornton’s remarkable season, in which he finished fourth overall in scoring and led the Sharks to the Stanley Cup Final, made him impossible to leave off the roster.
“He was someone who bumped off someone we probably had higher up the food chain,” says Armstrong. “We couldn’t ignore the work that he did.”
Among the forwards left off Canada’s roster, the biggest surprise was Corey Perry, who is still considered one the top scorers in the game. Armstrong called Perry personally to tell him he hadn’t been selected.
“We tried to reach out to the most recent Olympians and the players who had stepped up in World Championships or were right on the cusp,” he says. “We wanted to let them know they were on that shortlist. So those were some tough calls.”
The toughest came in selecting Canada’s defence—deliberations continued right up to the day before the 23-man roster was announced. The right side of the blueline is a particular strength for Canada. Armstrong and Co. planned to take four righties among the seven D-men they’d select.
Drew Doughty and Shea Weber were automatic choices. Duncan Keith and Marc-Édouard Vlasic would return on the left side, though Keith would be replaced by Jay Bouwmeester in late August due to a lingering knee injury. That meant there’d be room for two right-handed and one left-handed defencemen. Several right-handers were on the list, including P.K. Subban, Kris Letang, Brent Burns and Alex Pietrangelo. Like Pietrangelo, Subban was part of the Sochi roster, but was slotted as the seventh defenceman and played only one game. This time, he was snubbed completely, with Burns joining Pietrangelo as the final two right shots named.
For the final left-handed spot on the Canadian blueline, the management team took Jake Muzzin, whose only previous international experience came at the World Championship in 2015, when the Kings missed the playoffs. Muzzin had been overlooked in junior. He was drafted 141st by the Penguins in 2007 but was never signed. He re-entered the draft in 2009 but wasn’t selected and returned to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds as an overage player. The Kings signed him as a free agent in 2010, and in 2013 he worked his way into a plum job alongside Doughty. But Armstrong insists that Muzzin made the team on his own merits.
“He’s a big body who can play the 200-foot game and is strong in front of his own net,” Armstrong says. “He had to make the team on his own, and he did.”
With that, the newest iteration of Team Canada was set. In all, 14 players returned from the squad that brought home gold in Sochi. It’s arguably a faster, more offensively talented team, but will it be as successful?
Questions like that don’t concern Seguin. He’s just happy to finally be included on a roster of Canada’s best. Seguin will “never forget” the sting of being left off the world junior team in 2010, and even though he’s hoisted a Stanley Cup, this is a different pursuit entirely.
“It’s a true honour,” he says of wearing the maple leaf. “You hear that all the time, but it really is. Growing up, you always dream about winning a Stanley Cup—but you also dream of representing your country like this.”
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