Canada’s Yzerman ready to be called ‘stupid’

Hockey Canada will unveil its 2014 Olympic team Tuesday morning at the Toronto Maple Leafs' practice facility. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Up until now, the job of Team Canada’s executive director has been simple. Scout the NHL’s best players, conference with some of the best hockey minds in the nation, and hold a little summer ball-hockey practice in Calgary.

But as of 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Steve Yzerman’s role will come under the scrutiny of his country’s 34 million amateur GMs. The announcement of Canada’s 25-man defending gold medal roster at Toronto’s MasterCard Centre will no doubt be criticized and analyzed until the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament begins. If Canada fails to repeat as world champions, the deconstruction could linger for years afterward.

Puck drop on Yzerman’s stress level is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday.

“That’s when the worrying starts,” says Yzerman, charged with the prestigious yet unenviable task of making the final cuts from a team that will see no silver lining in a silver medal. “From my last experience, it’s easy up until you name the team. Then you sit there for five weeks or six weeks until the Olympics start and hold your breath and listen to everybody tell you how stupid you are for leaving this guy or that guy off.”

In 2010, Yzerman—whose primary job is managing the Tampa Bay Lightning—left off notables such as Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, casualties of the nation’s ridiculous forward depth. A 19-year-old Stamkos would go on to score 51 NHL goals in that Olympic year; St. Louis, a natural winger competing with centreman overflow, would register a whopping 94 points that season. Their omission from Vancouver’s squad would have been catastrophic if Canada’s all-stars did not mine gold. But winning is the greatest eraser of memories.

“We’re going to leave off some really good players. You look around: He’s gotta be on the team, he’s gotta be on the team… next thing you know, you’re up to 20 names,” says Yzerman, expected to pare his forward core down to 14 names. “Every player is proud. Every player feels, I want to be on that team; I should be on that team. And for the players that don’t get selected, it’s a bit of a letdown. The majority of players have experienced that at some time in their life. Some of these super-elite guys have never been through that. And the first time you go through that, it’s a blow.”

The list of Canada’s bubble guys—players who will be crossing their fingers, hoping to avoid placement on the hockey country’s fictitious B team—is long. Joe Thornton leads the league in assists; it would be no great shock to see him passed over. A healthy James Neal snipes with the best of ’em, and he’s a long shot at best. One of the more intriguing issues is how many talented centres get selected and moved to the wing—and which natural wingers lose a job because of it.

In addition to Yzerman, Canada’s selection committee includes Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe, St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong, and Hockey Canada’s Bob Nicholson and Brad Pascall of Hockey Canada. How do they decide whether a pivot can shift to the wing?

“If you haven’t seen them play it, to be honest, it’s a little bit of gut instinct. I look at the Canada Cups. Back in [1987], Gretzky and Lemieux were just thrown together. I don’t think Mario at that stage had played the wing. Sometimes is just happens. I think in today’s game it’s a little easier. There’s more interchangeability. Everybody kinda plays the trap, [and] in the D zone everybody plays similar. So forwards can rotate a bit better,” Yzerman says. “It’s easier for the good skaters at centre to play the wing.”

A good skater with a bad leg, Lightning centre Stamkos is one star likely to be nudged over the right wing. Stamkos is guaranteed to make the cut even though he hasn’t played since Nov. 11, when he broke his right leg crashing into a goalpost.

“He’s doing well. The bone is healing, he’s getting stronger, and he’s more aggressive in his rehab. They told us it’s a three to six-month process, and he’s gonna fall somewhere in there,” Yzerman says. “We’re hoping it’s closer to three months. He’s a motivated guy. He’s young. He’s got everything working in his favour to heal on the quicker side.”

Long viewed as the international hockey power to beat, Canada has struggled on the world stage since Sidney Crosby’s golden goal four years ago. On Sunday, Canada’s world juniors failed to medal at the under-20 championships for consecutive years. Canada hasn’t medaled in the IIHF world championships since 2009 and hasn’t won gold at the tournament since 2007. (Granted, that tournament takes place during the NHL playoffs and is not viewed as a best on best.) Like Canada, for host country Russia and the Americans, who came painfully close to gold in 2010, anything less than gold will taste of disappointment.

If Yzerman’s selections result in another golden moment, the GM will be hailed as a genius architect. If they falter to one of the many skilled opponents in Sochi, his picks will be discussed from here till South Korea.

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