CALGARY – Steve Yzerman still remembers what it was like in Nagano in 1998, the first Olympics with NHL players and an example of Canadian failure on the bigger, international-sized ice surface.
The time-honoured strategy of dumping the puck in and forechecking didn’t work.
“You can spend a lot of time skating places and getting there just a second late, taking yourself out of the play,” said Yzerman, now Canada’s general manager. “It is a different game.”
It was a different game at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, too, when Canada finished seventh thanks to a lack of offence and speed and the wrong mix of talent for the 200-by-100-foot rink.
San Jose Sharks defenceman Dan Boyle watched from the stands as his teammates struggled.
“It was tough to watch, it was frustrating,” Boyle said. “Even though every player on that team deserved to be there and was great, sometimes you need certain things and that’s where different guys come into play. I just thought we lacked some things.”
Eight years removed from that debacle and four years after winning Olympic gold in Vancouver on NHL-sized 200-by-85-foot ice, Hockey Canada is determined to learn from what went wrong without abandoning its style.
“One of the critical things is to continue to play the Canadian game and not adjust to some of the spaces that suddenly arise,” coaching consultant and former Edmonton Oilers coach Ralph Krueger said. “But you need to make sure that you don’t change your game or make too many adjustments that will weaken what makes Canada strong.”
What makes Canada strong, Yzerman and the coaching staff hope, is speed and agility. Perhaps that’s part of what the 2006 group was lacking.
Judging by the comments of those in charge of making up the 2014 roster, it doesn’t sound like that’ll be a problem this time around, even if it’s at the expense of some players who won gold four years ago.
“The biggest lesson is foot speed, for all players. You have to be able to skate and you have to be able to move the puck,” Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe said. “The team will be made up of players who can skate, think and move the puck. There could be a number of changes form the gold medal team in Vancouver.”
From the standpoint of piecing the team together, Canada learned from its folly in Turin that bringing back the majority of a team that just won gold—in that case the 2004 world championship—doesn’t always work. Turnover is to be expected because Yzerman wants a team built for big ice.
Of course it’s not as simple as picking 22 burners.
“We’re not just going to take the 14 fastest forwards and the eight fastest defencemen,” Yzerman said. “Hockey sense is probably the most important aspect a guy can have, particularly playing at a really high level, playing with good players around you.”
If it were all about speed, Taylor Hall of the Oilers, Marty St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins would be locks.
“I think I’d be a great player on big ice,” Hall said. “I’ve always felt that the big ice would certainly be good for my kind of game. Hopefully they see that, too. I think they’re going to really determine their team on what it’s like to play on big ice.”
Boyle, who played in Sweden during the 2004-05 lockout, knows it’s about more than just racing up and down the ice.
“You’ve got to be able to skate, but your angles are a little bit different,” he said. “Whether you’re a forward or defenceman I think the angling out there is a little bit different.”
That’s where hockey sense comes in. Because of the high cost of insurance, coach Mike Babcock had to get creative, putting players through ball-hockey walkthroughs on a boarded-up international-sized rink at Canada Olympic Park.
What that exercise allowed players to see was the amount of space they’ll have to work with. But assistant coach Ken Hitchcock also wants players not to feel like the bigger ice gives them room to play slower.
“I think the sucker play is you have more space, you have more time, so the tendency is to take more time,” the St. Louis Blues coach said. “It’s the big mistake. When we play well as Canadians, we play fast defensively and even faster offensively. It’s the sucker play if you make that mistake on big ice, you end up being slow and you get covered over quickly, defensively.”
Having experience on big ice could be valuable, especially for defencemen. Marc Methot of the Ottawa Senators represented Canada at the world championships in 2012 and 10 players from the 2013 team are at camp.
“The game’s completely different,” Methot said. “Showing that you can keep up and defend properly on that big ice surface is huge. It’s an advantage I have, and I’m hoping that it’ll help me out.”
Of course it’s no prerequisite that players have a wealth of experience on the big ice. The key is more about having players who are willing to adjust after playing the first part of the NHL season on smaller rinks.
Like Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers,” Hitchcock could use a tape measure from end to end and show that it’s still a 200-foot rink.
“The commitment to play at both ends of the rink is critical,” he said. “I think we’ve learned over time that there are so many good teams with so many good players and, especially over there, they know how to play on that ice. I think having players that can play that 200-foot game is more important than the position they happen to play.”