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Canadian men’s hockey team shaping identity amid whirlwind schedule

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – The Gangneung Hockey Centre is striking, its gleaming oblong octagon exterior giving way to a pristine interior, where the international ice, 60 metres long by 30 metres wide and surrounded by baby blue seating, gleams a vivid white under the lights.

It makes quite the first impression.

“I went out to take a peak and it’s a bright arena,” said Chris Kelly, who will captain the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team. “It will be exciting to get out there and play.”

The Canadians were scheduled to practice at the venue Thursday but missed their window when their flight from Riga, Latvia, where they held a training camp before arriving in Pyeongchang, was delayed.

A whirlwind schedule upon landing included being outfitted with Olympic gear, getting checked into the Olympic village, visits to their rooms where Hockey Canada set up pictures of their families, a briefing on taking precautions amid the norovirus outbreak and, finally, a visit to the rink.

In the midst of that came the announcement of Kelly, a veteran of 833 NHL games playing this season with Belleville in the American Hockey League, as captain. Rene Bourque, Andrew Ebbett, Chris Lee and Derek Roy will rotate as alternates with Maxim Noreau also part of team’s leadership group.

“I’m a little taken aback,” said Kelly. “Such a great honour and very humbling. There are so many great people in that locker-room that could ultimately be wearing it. It’s a thrill.”

For the 37-year-old, the captaincy is a first since being selected in the third round by the Ottawa Senators in the 1999 NHL draft, although he’s served as an alternate. Seven of his 13 years in the NHL were with the Senators with the remaining six with the Boston Bruins.

“For whatever reason I couldn’t get it in Ottawa when they had (Daniel) Alfredsson there and then I went to Boston and they had (Zdeno) Chara,” he quipped. “I don’t know. Just bad luck I guess.”

Kelly named Alfredsson and Chara as two captains he really respected and added that from across the ice, he admired the way Sidney Crosby handles the role.

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Supporting Kelly in Pyeongchang will be a leadership group heavy on both NHL and European experience that is sure to be handy in a wild-card Olympic tournament that features a stacked Russian roster but a relatively open field beyond them with the NHL taking a pass on South Korea.

“The perception of the game changes when you have that much leadership,” said Noreau, a puck-moving defenceman currently with Bern SC in Switzerland. “If you play really well, you’re not looking at only the good things you’ve done. You also look at the little details in the long run that might hurt you, just because you get away from them in that game doesn’t mean you’ll get away with it against a good team in the semifinals or finals. So that really helps keep an even-keel and stay humble, too. This might be a short tournament, but there are a lot of things that game by game you can improve on.”

Canada started finding itself during a pair of exhibition wins in Riga, beating Latvia and Belarus by identical 2-0 scores.

Noreau liked the business-like approach the team took into those contests, and they’ll get a better measuring stick of where they are heading into the Games when they play another exhibition Sunday versus Sweden.

Among the challenges they face is congealing around an identity on the ice quickly.

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“Our forecheck is a huge part of our game,” said Noreau. “We have big forwards that can skate really well and I think they built the team around having puck-moving defencemen, so if we can transition really quick, get into their zone, and even if we don’t enter with possession get on the forecheck, that’s something that will give other teams a hard time. We’re built for quick transition, built for speed and that’s what we tried to work on a lot in Riga, even in practices. It should be tough for teams to break out under our pressure.”

Kelly felt the Canadians did a good job of sticking to that vision in Latvia, which is something they must continue to build on to succeed in the Games.

“Like most Canadian teams we’re going to be hard-working, intense. We’re going to check first. I think we’re going to play an up-tempo game,” he said. “The NHL season is more of a marathon, this tournament is more of a sprint. It’s important that our leadership group and everyone collectively tries to come together as quick as possible and buys into our identity and the way we want to play and get off running. There’s no time to feel things out.”

Canada opens at the Olympics against Switzerland next Thursday.