31 Days to Sochi: 25 lessons from Team Canada

As happy and proud as Sidney Crosby is to make Team Canada, he's even more thrilled for teammate and linemate Chris Kunitz making Canada's Olympic team.

TORONTO — Some of the world’s greatest hockey minds collaborated over five months, and the results of their late nights and epic debates were unveiled Tuesday morning at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence.

Team Canada’s executive director Steve Yzerman, Hockey Canada president and CEO Bob Nicholson, coach Mike Babcock, and the management staff of Doug Armstrong, Peter Chiarelli, Ken Holland and Kevin Lowe announced the defending gold medal team that will be flying to Sochi next month.

Here are 25 things we learned from our nation hockey brain trust, one for every player selected to Team Canada’s men’s Olympic roster.

1. The debates ran past the 11th hour… all the way to the first hour of Tuesday.
For five months, the selection committee members discussed philosophy, individual player strengths, and the overall makeup of the team. Then they arrived in Toronto at 4 p.m. Monday, went for dinner and went through all the candidates again—for nine more hours of deliberation. They wanted to be sure they went to bed secure in their final decisions.
“For me, it was the most difficult exercise. It was very revealing. It was fun. It was hard work, but last night was difficult,” says Chiarelli, who admits second thoughts crept in Monday night as the group went over the final four or five spots.
“We were up until one o’clock last night, grinding away, making sure we felt good about our decisions. In some case you can drop one off and put another one on, they’re so close,” says Holland. “We felt that these 25 players selected gives Canada the best chance to win gold.”

2. Selecting two-way forwards was important to the committee.
“I’ve worked with Mike Babcock since 2005. He’s going to expect everybody to play the 200-foot game. When you turn it over, you gotta backcheck. You got to play good team defence. We’re going to be in lots of one-goal games,” says Holland. “That’s what Mike Babcock preaches in Detroit, and certainly that’s the way Steve Yzerman was when he played.”

3. Experience and leadership is key…
Eleven of the 25 players were integral to Canada’s golden victory four years ago in Vancouver. Sixteen players have captured gold at the world junior championships. Ten are winners of the IIHF world championship. And six NHL captains will dress for Canada.

4. …but so is youth and energy.
“We wanted that blend of experience, some youth, some speed, some high IQ,” Holland explains. “You want to have as many different dimensions as you can.”

5. The process was tweaked from 2010.
Yzerman looked at the selection process from Vancouver’s effort and took steps to make it more efficient and more comfortable this go-round.
It began in Calgary with a summertime orientation camp. The committee then built a master list of all the players on its radar and highlighted the sure things. The list shrunk as the season wore on, names dropping off with every meeting. Constant calls were made amongst the group between meetings.
For three days, the committee gathered in California before December’s board of governors meetings. Three or four conference calls have been held since then. The group had essentially decided on 10 to 12 of the forwards, most of the defencemen and the trio of goaltenders by the time they arrived in Toronto for the announcement.
“When it’s time to make a decision, we hash it out. It’s not so much a vote, but we tend to all agree on something and move on to the next one,” Yzerman says. As GM, he says he never laid down a fist like, “I’m right, you’re wrong. This is what we’re doing.”
If a player or philosophy—including one of Yzerman’s—didn’t get support from the group, they moved on.

6. Just because you’re not invited to camp doesn’t mean you can’t play your way on.
Neither young Jamie Benn, 24, nor veteran Patrick Marleau, 34, were part of the 45 players invited to Canada’s orientation camp. With a minimum 15 goals and 22 assists apiece, both forwards played their way onto this roster from October through December.
Yzerman’s first real look at Benn was two years ago at the world championships in Finland. Since then, people have been in Yzerman’s ear, telling him the kid could play for Canada in ’14. Listed as a centre, Benn should be used on the left side in Sochi.
“You look back now and say, well, we probably should’ve brought him to that camp,” Yzerman admits. “I talked to [Dallas Stars GM] Jim Nill about him, and it’s fair to say he’s maturing as an athlete and a person. He had a great offseason of training, and it’s benefitted his play.”

7. The players who didn’t make it were all called Tuesday morning.
“You’re at a level of talent evaluation now where every player is so good, it’s about fit and chemistry—and those are very subjective debates,” Chiarelli says. Big names like Claude Giroux and Joe Thornton went unchosen.
Certainly a number of players not selected to the club could be Olympians, but this is a good problem to have. “The great part about being a Canadian is the depth of the talent pool,” Holland says. “We knew we’d have to leave some people off that could play on the team.
“They’re disappointed. They’re short calls. They want to represent their country, and they all want to be here.”

8. Rick Nash didn’t expect to make it, but his resume helped him out.
A modest surprise at forward given his concussion, Nash went out and scored two goals on the eve of his selection. Few come with Nash’s international experience, aiding in part because he played on so many Columbus Blue Jackets teams that failed to qualify for the playoffs. Nash, a natural winger and a big body, has 53 points in 54 games at the elite international level.

9. P.K. Subban’s game-breaking style gave him the nod.
Subban, one of 15 players whose position on the team was hotly debated, was chosen for his ability to transport the puck up ice, run a power-play and make a game-breaking play. He’s not only a big body but he can provide stretch passes and generate offence from the back end that will be valued highly on the large ice.
“We’re going over there with eight defencemen; we’re going to dress seven,” Holland explains. “Coaches make adjustments. Some players play up the roster in terms of responsibility and ice time; some players play their way down. These things happen quick.”

10. Logan Couture couldn’t have picked a worse time for surgery.
On the eve of the Team Canada announcement, it was revealed that Olympic hopeful Logan Couture would undergo hand surgery Wednesday and be out of commission for a minimum of three weeks. The versatile forward was a “hot topic till the end,” Holland says. But the timing of Couture’s injury couldn’t have been worse for his Sochi chances. “He’s one of many really good players that weren’t selected to this team.”

11. The influence of Mike Babcock loomed large in the selection.
One of the most decorated coaches on the international level, Babcock needed players he would actually use. So the committee discussed scenarios with the coach: Who would be used on the power play? The penalty kill?
“If we’re down by a goal with a minute to go, who’s going to be on the ice? If we’re up by a goal with a minute to go, who’s going to be on the ice? Who takes a draw in our own zone on the penalty kill? We went through all those scenarios with Mike Babcock, and he talked to his coaches,” Holland explains. “He’s got to feel confident with the guys on the ice.”
As Monday night wore on, Babcock fired off phone calls and texts to his coaches, asking them to compare players. Babcock says former Oilers coach Ralph Krueger, a special advisor to Team Canada, was especially valuable in the scouting process.

12. The Hall of Famers will be missed on the blue line.
Asked to compare 2010’s squad to this one, the first names Yzerman brought up were Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger—a pair of nails-tough, reliable blue-liners with all-world resumes. But the ’14 club may have an edge in one area.
“The major difference is on the wings,” Yzerman says. “You’d probably say this team is a little faster skating upfront.”

13. Dan Hamhuis is your dark horse winner.
Safe. Steady. Solid. Coaches trust him. Those are the positive reports the committee received regarding the international play of Vancouver Canucks defenceman, a modest surprise on the back end who beat out Dan Boyle and Brent Seabrook, among others.
“He can play a simple game. He can kill penalties. He can play a lesser role or a bigger role,” says Holland. “Dan’s been one of those guys we’ve focused on the last couple of months.”
Guys like Hamhuis will counterbalance players like Subban, who will take off and join the rush.

14. A premium was placed on left-handed defencemen.
There has been much ado about Canada’s wealth of defencemen with a right-handed shot and relative dearth of lefty blueliners. How much would the decision-makers care about the curve of a man’s stick. The answer: a lot.
While going with five righties and three lefties was on the table, they all determined it was important to go with four of each.

15. Familiar teammates are great, but don’t go to the circus unless you expect to see some juggling.
Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
“You’ve got two thirds of three lines,” says Holland. “This tournament is going to happen fast. You’ve got to hit the ground running. The more guys you have playing comfortable together, the better it is.”
Holland says picking a pair based on NHL team success only became a factor when there was a tie.
Although Holland thinks playing St. Louis Blues teammates Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo together is only natural, Babcock doesn’t quite see those pairing as essential.
“Last time we brought Keith and Seabrook because of that, and they didn’t play together,” Babcock points out. “We’re looking for the best of the best.”

16. Martin St. Louis must be crushed right now.
St. Louis, who plays for Yzerman’s Tampa Bay Lightning and won the NHL scoring race in 2012-13, did not make the cut.
“Marty St. Louis has been through a lot through his entire career, and he’s always overcome any setback, any disappointment and go on to become a tremendous player. Obviously he and I will sit down and talk more when I get back [to Tampa],” Yzerman says. “Each decision we make, they’re hard things to do.”

17. Joe Thornton, only the NHL’s assist leader, was left off as well.
Yzerman stressed that no one has watched more hockey than his group this season. No cut was made lightly.
“You end up over-evaluating players, and you have to be wary of that,” Chiarelli says. “You watch so much hockey that you go in circles a little bit.”

18. Babcock isn’t worried about prep time.
“Not a big issue,” says the head coach. His coaching staff has already poured hours of time into preparation for these Games and isn’t worried the slightest about building team chemistry over the course of two weeks.
“You build. You take a step a day,” he says. “If you think you’re going to be the best you can be on Day 1, you’re not going to be. It’s impossible. A little adversity is going to get involved.”

19. The big ice was a factor, but not the biggest one.
Kevin Lowe’s brain was picked extensively on the 1998 and 2006 Olympic teams, Canadian squads that failed to medal overseas on the big ice.
Yzerman says the team wouldn’t be dramatically different if the Games were held on an NHL-size rink.
“Ultimately, the game is going towards skating in North America with no red lines and the bigger end zones and the fact that you touch a guy with a stick it’s a penalty now,” Yzerman says. “It’s not so much about physical play or checking.”
Babcock says he watched the world juniors closely and believes the big ice is a factor, “but being a good hockey player is a factor too.”

20. The selection committee is a tight group.
The continuity of the brain trust helped smooth the selection process. Most of the members worked together in choosing the last couple world championship teams. Yzerman played for Babcock before picking the teams he’d coach in 2010 and 2014.
“Mike Babcock knows what Steve Yzerman’s thinking and vice versa,” says Holland.

21. Matt Duchene was the happiest guy in the world today.
The committee divided up the roster, and each was given the pleasant task of calling the chosen ones Tuesday morning and letting them know they had made the cut.
Duchene, 22, was Chiarelli’s favourite call: “He was ecstatic. When you make calls like that, it’s fun to be part of it.”

22. It’s gold or bust. Who are we kidding?
“Listen. We’re in the business of winning,” says Chiarelli. “In my business, if we don’t win, I get held accountable for it. We expect to win. We put a lot of time into this team, and I’ll be disappointed if we don’t win.”

23. The disappointment of the 2014 world juniors doesn’t add pressure to Canada. Canada adds pressure to Canada.
“Whether you’re playing an under-18 tournament, a men’s Olympics or a women’s Olympics, Canadians love this game and they want Canadian teams to win,” says Nicholson. “If we have gold-medal performances in all the games, we’ll end up with the right colour.”

24. Babcock is already picking his shootout snipers.
Like it or not (and we know Detroit’s Holland does not like it), a medal victory could come down to a skills contest. On Monday night, the committee called up every candidate’s shootout record. And Babcock wants to study all the shootout records for all his players during this last month of NHL games
“We’re gonna hope we win in regulation,” Holland says, letting out a laugh. “Most of these forwards take shootouts for their teams. In Europe, it’s different. After you use your first few players, you can use the same player over and over again. That’s what [Babcock] did against Switzerland in ’10: he used Sidney Crosby a second time. He didn’t score the first time; he scored the second time.”

25. So… who starts in net versus Norway?
Yzerman believes Canada will be strong in net; he just wants these guys to stay healthy. But tapping a starter will be solely on Babcock’s shoulders.
“We chose three goalies that could start,” Babcock says. “With the injury situation in the National Hockey League, to say this guy is your starter, you’re foolish. We picked three guys who can win any game.”

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