How to win in Sochi

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

Since the Olympics opened its doors to the NHL, Canada has been boom or bust in men’s hockey—more precisely, two booms and two busts.

Pat Quinn knows how it feels to stand by and listen to “O Canada.” He also knows what it’s like to stand by on the sidelines when the medals are being handed out.

Quinn was the lead man on the Canadian bench in Salt Lake City in 2002 and everything fell into place for a most authoritative victory, beating the host Americans in the final. Four years later, he was back and left to explain the Canadian pros’ most humbling finish: three shutout losses—to Russia in the quarterfinals and to the Finns and the Swiss in the opening round. He can speak with first-hand insight into the Olympic hockey experience.

Of course, those Olympic tournaments represent only part of Quinn’s international experience.

He also coached the Canadian team at the 1986 world championships in Moscow, and it was a moral victory of sorts. The roster was one of those patchwork numbers with players out of the NHL playoffs, but still Canada came away with a bronze medal while the hosts edged out Sweden for the gold.

Just two years after the 2006 crash and burn in Turin, Quinn took a lightly considered team to the 2008 world under-18s in Kazan, Russia, and guided it to the finals against the heavily favoured host Russians. The gold-medal game in that tournament was probably the most dominant performance by a Canadian team against a Soviet or Russian squad: Canada 8, Russia 0.

Quinn has some well-considered views on elements that would set Canada on course for victory in Sochi to match the 2002 and 2010 championships. He also has warnings about tripwires that might knock the team sideways.

Step 1: Get everybody on the same page about the roster

Pat Quinn believes the team-selection process was a key to victory in 2002 and maybe the chief cause of defeat in 2006 in Turin. The notion is puzzling on its face—after all, virtually all the same principals were on hand for both, led by executive director Wayne Gretzky and Quinn as coach. As Quinn points out, however, the run-up to the 2006 tournament was dramatically different to that of 2002. “With the 2002 selection, Wayne didn’t have a full-time job and he could dedicate himself completely to scouting the candidates and keeping the lines of communication open with the rest of us,” Quinn says. “With Turin, though, Wayne had started coaching in Phoenix that season. He had a lot on his plate. He was able to see players of interest when they were playing against the Coyotes, but that’s pretty limiting when you’re trying to evaluate the guys who are in the conversation. You want to see them as much as possible. And you want the management team and the coaches talking all the time.”

It seems like Hockey Canada had this in mind when it selected Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock for the management and coaching slots in Vancouver—Yzerman was able to dedicate as much time as he needed to see Olympic candidates because his job description with the Wings was open-ended and he could consult with Babcock at any point in time. It’s a big question though, what this bodes for Sochi: It seems unlikely that, as Tampa Bay GM, he’s done the same sort of first-hand scouting he did in 2010. However, he can lean on others from his days in Detroit, GM Ken Holland and Babcock. Before the realigned conferences this season, Yzerman’s former colleagues with the Wings would have seen a lot more of Jeff Carter, Patrick Sharp, Jamie Benn and other candidates out west than Yzerman has recently.

Step 2: Know what team you want and coach the team you have

“You want your team to have an identity,” Quinn says. He points to the most impressive of recent Canadian international championship teams as the model on this count. “Brent Sutter saw the team that he had at the [2005] world juniors in North Dakota as this big, physically punishing team that was going to beat up opponents and then beat them on the scoreboard,” Quinn says. “They did exactly that. That’s not to say they didn’t have a ton of skill. They did. But Sutter knew that the physical game was going to open up ice and opportunity for that skill to come through.” The need to have an identity can’t be a matter of personal preference, though. As much as the media and fans might tend to connect a coach with a certain style of game, there’s no imposing an identity on a team. Identity has to start with the talent on hand. It also has to end there: The players have to recognize, accept and play within that identity. They have to be on-message. That same 2005 team that Sutter coached to gold might have had a very different result if it eschewed physicality for a run-and-gun vertical game. By way of contrast, the 2013 junior team that Sutter coached to a fourth-place finish never really had a sense of identity. And this second point doubles back to the first point: If the lines of communication between the management team are open, a coach will have a better sense of a viable team identity.

Step 3: Don’t over-coach

A coach has to fight his instincts and accept the limits imposed by a short tournament and an all but non-existent run-up to the first game. In the couple of sessions on the ice before the opening game in Sochi, Babcock and his staff will have to keep it brief and to the point, stripping everything down to the basics. “As a coach, you really can’t put things in the way that you’d like to if you were working with a team in an NHL training camp in September,” Quinn says. “If you try to do too much, you just risk confusing the players. It’s not like coaching players at a different level. You have to trust guys who are picked for an Olympic team. They’re not just the most skilled players in the world but they’re some of the most intelligent players in the world, too. They see things and understand them. They know what to do in situations and can process things on the ice so quickly.” As quickly as Mario Lemieux did when he let Chris Pronger’s pass to Paul Kariya slide between his skates for a goal that gutted the U.S. in the final in 2002. Over-coaching might be an issue with teams in other international tournaments—say, a young Canadian Hockey League coach trying to make his mark at an under-17 or under-18 tournament. That’s the thing about coaches—they like to coach, and because of that they’ll tend to over-coach rather than step back. You have to presume that Babcock doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone, with a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold on his CV, and that he recognizes that in this case, at least, less coaching is a more productive approach. “You have those opening-round games before you get to the elimination games,” Quinn says. “Your team is going to get better just playing those games. Every game is important in a short tournament, but the idea is to be improving every game.” Patience seems like an unlikely virtue for a coach in a short tournament, but the players and staff have to understand that not everything has to be in place for game one. Sure, an unimpressive performance in the opening game will lead to a rush to judgment—a public panic and a media inquisition—but the players and staff have to maintain a better everyday mindset.

Step 4: Don’t dwell on the dimensions of the rink, but don’t dump and chase either

OK, it’s not a canard, but it does run the risk of becoming a mental block. “We have our game and they have theirs” is at once a statement, an excuse and a self-fulfilling prophecy if you don’t let go of it. There’s no disputing that there’s a premium put on skating when it comes to play on a 200-by-100-foot ice surface. That, however, would only be a consideration for the Olympic management team when putting together its roster. Then again, how many legitimate candidates to play for Canada these days are held back by their skating? In the past, it would have been a knock on, say, Brendan Shanahan or Rob Zamuner, but the NHL game is substantially different today than it was in ’98 or even 2002—not just the enforcement of rules, but at the very basic level of training and conditioning. The game is faster today because the rules have opened it up and the players are conditioned to exploit those openings. There are factors to be considered in crossing over. For defencemen, Quinn says it comes down to positioning. “Defence is about angles, and on the big ice, a defenceman has to play angles a little differently, but that’s just a matter of awareness.” For forwards, there’s a strategic difference in the way the game is played on the larger surface. “Unless the other guys are just going to line up along the blueline, which they don’t do, you don’t want to get into a dump-and-chase game,” Quinn says. “You want to look to possess the puck when you’re coming up to and crossing over the blueline. But that should be a game that works in your favour at this level.” That is, by playing a puck-possession game rather than a dump-and-chase strategy, you’re asking the most skilled players this country produces to make skilled plays. You’re asking them to make skilled plays in the company of other skilled players, not the middle-of-the-roster guys or call-ups they might be on the ice with in the NHL. And you’re asking the smartest players to understand this and adapt as necessary. Yeah, for players on the Canadian Olympic roster, it’s not the game they’re accustomed to, but, then again, it’s not necessarily the game that European players in the NHL have been playing a lot of this season.

Step 5: Recognize that what wins in the NHL is exactly what wins in the Olympics

Or in the game at any level. As wide as the ice might be, as strange as the officiating might be, a puck in the slot at the Olympics isn’t any different than a puck in the slot on a Tuesday night in Columbus. “Games are won and lost in the same places on the ice,” Quinn says. “You need players to finish chances that they finish in the league, just like you need goaltenders to make saves in a semifinal or a final that they make in the league.”

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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