Team Canada emphasizing chemistry at Olympic Winter Games

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

GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Chay Genoway knows fellow Manitoban Jonathan Toews from back in the day, so as part of the Canadian Olympic team’s preparation for Pyeongchang, he set up a call for his teammates with the Chicago Blackhawks captain and two-time gold medallist.

The coaching staff and management group has been seeking to drive home the point that when it comes to a short, high-stakes tournament like the Olympic Winter Games, everyone needs to buy into the team’s concept and the roles they are assigned. They’ve showed their players stats to demonstrate how established NHL stars have taken cuts in ice-time, power-play minutes and other first-line perks they’ve long been accustomed to, putting team before self to chase success.

“What it comes down to at the end of the day is trust,” says Sean Burke, the two-time Olympian who is general manager of the 2018 club. “You want your guys to know each other as quickly as they can and believe in each other so when they step on the ice they trust each other.”

To that end Genoway, a defenceman from Morden now in his fourth season playing in the KHL, got in touch with Toews, who “was trying to get across that when they won (gold) in 2014, it really was a team effort,” according to Burke.

“Everybody has to do their part and sometimes that part is not what their normal part is, they’ve got to take on a different role,” Burke continued. “When you hear it from Jonathan Toews, when you hear it from guys who are the top player on their own team, and then they join the Olympic team and kill penalties or block shots, do things that is not necessarily their role, it hits home.”

Such team-building work has been as much a focus for the Canadians as their two on-ice practices at the Olympics so far. They skated Saturday at Guangneng Hockey Arena, focusing again on their breakouts, transitions and puck movement, with a light-hearted shootout at the end in which the teams had to do five push-ups each if their player didn’t score.

Goaltender Ben Scrivens at one point taunted Wojtek Wolski, shouting, “I know your move,” before the forward skated down. Turned out he was right, as Scrivens got the pad down on a forehand-backhand, five-hole attempt.

“We were talking about shootout moves yesterday, so it was fresh,” said Scrivens. “He actually almost had me on that one. It’s more trash talk than anything. He’s got a lot of tricks in his bag. He’s a good player, and he can put the puck in the net. You’ve got to try to get whatever edge you can.”

The same goes for the team as a whole, which has also brought in motivational speakers and held one bonding event each day, trying to ensure a group of players who have received an unexpected opportunity to play in the Olympics makes the most of it.

Captain Chris Kelly, for instance, remembers watching Paul Kariya and Petr Nedved help Canada win a surprise silver at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, but never imagined playing in the Games himself until the NHL took a pass on Pyeongchang.

“When you play, going to the NHL would be great but the Olympics are so far off the radar that you can’t even dream that big,” he said. “To be here, I don’t think words can do it justice. It’s such an honour. This was too big to dream. The stars aligned.”

His family has caught Olympic fever, too, as during a Saturday morning FaceTime chat with his daughters Presley and Evynn, they showed him a poster they had made. There were lots of Maple Leafs and a tiny little drawing of him.

At 37, he’s one of the team’s elder statesmen and has the wisdom and perspective that comes with experience.

Athletes are inherently selfish, he says, they must be in order to succeed, but having a family has taught him there’s room for others, too, something he feels the Canadians must keep in mind.

“Having conversations with each other, not only about hockey, but about family, where they’re coming from, getting together and knowing one another builds that trust,” said Kelly. “The coaching staff and management staff have done a great job recognizing certain individuals and what their strengths are. Everybody knows what they bring to the group and everyone has that buy-in, team-first mentality. It’s been extremely easy to buy into this group.”

The national team has also been leaning on Burke, making his return to the Olympics as an executive after backstopping Canada to a fourth-place finish at the 1988 Games in Calgary and a silver in 1992 at Albertville, France.

Winning is the team’s priority, he made clear, but he’s also been urging his players to look around and appreciate their surroundings, to soak in all the experience has to offer.

By doing so, “you gain more of an appreciation for some of the other athletes and the work and the four years of preparation for this one opportunity. When you’re watching events, I find myself thinking more about that. This isn’t just about today or competing in this event, it’s all the work these people put into getting here. When you’re an athlete you know it but you don’t reflect much on it. Now, where I am in this phase, it is amazing that you have all these great athletes in one place.”

Which is also why as an executive he’s leaving no stone unturned, which includes giving Toews the floor to address his team.

“We’re lucky,” he said. “As Canadians, we’ve seen our teams to (be selfless). You can say it, but when you see Brad Marchand, or you see Jonathan Toews, you see our superstar players take on a different role because they know that’s what is going to help the team be successful, that’s the best teaching you can do. We can stand up there as coaches and management and say, hey, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that, but the examples are what really convince people.”

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