Speed being emphasized as Team Canada hits ice for first practice

Members of Canada men's hockey team gather on the ice during a practice session ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (Felipe Dana/AP)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Canada’s first practice at the Olympics was also its first practice together as a group, a crisp hour-long affair in which break-outs, zone entries and the power play were worked on before closing things out with a brisk white-versus-red shootout.

In good humour, the winner was in dispute.

“It was pretty cool,” defenceman Chris Lee said of hitting ice with the five rings on it. “The ice conditions weren’t great but … we were a little short-handed (at the training camp) in Riga, guys were showing the day of the game and jumping right into the games, so this was our first practice as a group and it felt good to get out there. It sinks in a little bit more when you finally get to go out and perform a little bit.”

Head coach Willie Desjardins echoed that sentiment, saying, “it’s about time we got here, everybody’s excited about that,” but there’s still some slog to trudge through before the bell rings for Canada’s opener next Thursday against Switzerland.

Friday’s practice hit many of the focal points the Canadians are emphasizing, such as leveraging their speed, having defencemen transition the puck quickly to their forwards and jumping in on the attack when opportune.

Desjardins described his defensive corps as “one of our strengths throughout” the team-building process and he wants them playing the type of two-way, speed game that’s the way of the NHL right now.

“You always want them tight (to the play),” he said. “The best way to play against speed is to get up there and play a tight gap. We want our D to be active on both ends of the rink. Our best chance of winning is being five guys up and five guys back.

“If we do that we’ve got a chance. If we don’t then it’s going to be tough.”

The slick-skating Lee will be among those counted on to spring the forwards loose after taking the puck from the opposition.

The 37-year-old from MacTier, Ont., has been playing on the wide international ice since joining the Cologne Sharks in Germany for the 2010-11 season, and understands how to exploit the extra space.

“We’re kind of an undersized D-core, an average D size I think would be 5-11 on our team,” said Lee, who attended training camp with the Los Angeles Kings before returning to Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL for a fifth season. “But we can all skate really well and their idea is to be puck-moving, getting in and out of our zone as quick as possible, get the puck in the forwards’ hands and create offence on that end. We’re all good enough skaters that we can join the rush, as well, and hopefully create that second-wave attack, as well.”

The Canadians, of course, will be far from the only team playing that way when the Pyeongchang Games begin, and they won’t be the only club that can wheel.

Either way, speed is only a weapon if a team makes smart decisions with the puck.

“We need to penetrate, too, we need to get in and take pucks to the net,” said forward Mason Raymond, who’s playing with SC Bern in the Swiss League. “If we can get our D up in the group and out on the rush, joining and making it more of a four-man attack, I think that’s an advantage, especially on this wide ice when you can drive the net and hopefully push their defencemen back. All of our D are very mobile and very able to get up in the play and create that offence and if need be to get back. Olympic ice can showcase your skating and that’s an asset we can exploit.”

Even still, putting all the pieces together in a truncated period isn’t easy.

Raymond said the Canadians were “still finding our identity a little bit,” but pointed to the importance of the bonding measures Hockey Canada has put together since the pre-camp tournaments started in August, such as team activities, group events and bringing in guests.

One that caught his attention was Jamie Clarke, an adventurer and motivational speaker who has climbed Mount Everest.

“There are a lot of parallels you can draw between that and what we’re doing,” said Raymond. “He’s been around us for a bunch, very motivational, very exciting guy, a lot of guys really enjoyed hearing from him and continue to ask him questions.”

Players have also been leaning on team GM Sean Burke, team executive Martin Brodeur and assistant coach Dave King for their Olympic experience, while some players have been in touch with Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews to ask about his thoughts.

“We’re doing little things to gel in a short amount of time,” said Raymond. “I think those can be keys to a short tournament.”

The Canadians have one more day of practice before their final warmup game, Sunday across the country in Incheon against Sweden, as they continue to figure themselves out.

“We know we’re going to be a hard-working team,” said Lee. “Something they’re trying to instill in us is to try and play Canadian hockey. That’s hard work, that’s passionate, leaving everything out on the ice. We can bring that for sure.”

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