HALIFAX – This is a different coaching assignment for Ken Hitchcock.
Only half of his Canadians players at the IIHF World Hockey Championship have worked themselves into a permanent role on the team, leaving everyone else in a state of flux while Hitchcock moves them around and looks for the magic mix.
Unlike in the NHL, he can’t really bench an underperformer and call someone up from the minors. There’s a real tightrope to be walked when dealing with the slow starters at this event.
“The coaches handle us a lot different,” said first-line winger Rick Nash. “Guys are here kind of on their own time. I’m not saying that it’s not an honour to represent Canada but I think they know we’re here with our families. It’s supposed to be a fun tournament as well.
“In saying that, I think Hitch has been fair. He’s been on top of the guys, he’s letting us know when we’ve got to pick it up and when we’ve got to be better. And I think that’s a good thing.”
One player that has found himself falling back in the rotation is Jason Spezza, who was skating with the fourth line during practice on Wednesday morning.
Despite that, he maintained his usual sense of humour.
“Grinding it out,” Spezza said with a laugh. “That’s the strength of my game.”
Only one of Canada’s 13 forwards spent less time on the ice than Spezza during Canada’s 5-4 win over the United States on Tuesday.
Spezza started this tournament on the second line with Martin St. Louis and Eric Staal but there was one big problem – both he and Staal are natural centres and neither was able to quickly adapt to the wing. Hitchcock addressed that issue by moving Spezza to the middle of the fourth unit between the rotating group of Jamal Mayers, Jason Chimera and Patrick Sharp.
“They talked to me today and made sure that I didn’t think it was something wrong,” said Spezza. “I’m playing with a couple great players. Sharpie had 40 goals or close to 40 goals, I don’t think it’s too much of a demotion.”
That’s pretty important to Hitchcock.
Part of his job is ensuring that the team’s morale stays as high as possible during the three-week event and that isn’t always easy to do when it comes time to make tough decisions. Still, he won’t shy away from those.
“No matter what the guy’s career was and no matter what the guy did during the season, what he is today is what you’re coaching,” Hitchcock said after the U.S. game. “That’s the way you got to deal with it.”
The career coach is known for having a demanding style but he’s also a master communicator.
After watching his team struggle at times against the Americans, Hitchcock realized he needed to take his players through specific drills to reinforce what he’s been trying to teach using video. He leaves no stones unturned.
“Hitch does a real good job of that,” said assistant coach Pat Burns. “He gets everybody trying to understand how we got to play to win.
“He’s done a lot of work doing this, he has some experiences in these tournaments and he knows that if we play a certain way we’re going to be good. If we have one or two stray lambs that get away, we’ve got to bring them back into the herd and say, ‘Hey, this is how we got to do it.’ “
Canada will play Norway Thursday (3:30 p.m. ET) after the Norwegians advanced to the qualification round by shocking Germany 3-2. Canada will also play Germany and Finland in the coming days.
“There’s going to be some really tough games coming up against opponents that have great continuity in their game,” said Hitchcock. “We have to play better.”
In other games, Finland beat Slovakia 3-2, Switzerland defeated Sweden 4-2 and Belarus downed France 3-1.
The Canadians will need to do some jelling before the next round. The players joined the team in waves during a pre-tournament training camp and Hitchcock has only had the full lineup together for a week. His attitude has changed now that the team is playing high-intensity games like the one it had against the U.S.
“You start off this tournament asking players to play and sometimes begging players to play,” said Hitchcock. “You get in a game like this, you’re not asking, you’re not begging, you’re demanding. You’re back coaching.
“These are our players and we’re going to coach them to another level.”
Nash is one of three Columbus Blue Jackets on the Canadian team and says he has seen the coach use a much tougher approach in the NHL than he’s displayed here so far.
However, the big winger knows that might change.
“I think he’s going to do whatever it takes to win,” said Nash. “If it’s being hard on us to get us going, that’s what it takes.”