The Hockey News spoke to Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Pronger find out the key ingredients to winning an event like the World Cup.
When it comes to a tournament such as the World Cup of Hockey, and other short-term international hockey events, there are certain ingredients that lead to success or failure.
Few know that better than Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman Chris Pronger, who helped Canada win gold medals at the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics, the 1997 World Championship and the 1993 World Junior Championship.
Pronger played key roles on all those teams. THN.com asked the hulking rearguard to pinpoint several key ingredients to winning such an event.
“To me the biggest thing is chemistry,” Pronger said. “Getting the lines, the defence pairings and the match-ups are critical. Our teams in Canada don’t ever play together. It’s not like Sweden where the national team gets together and practices. We never, ever play together.”
Promger said learning the goalie’s tendencies is also critical. You need to know how the goalie plays the puck out of the corner. Who do they want you to take? Where do they leave the rebounds most frequently? Do they want you to box out the guy or do they want to see the puck? There are a lot of different things that play into that.
“The teams that were successful for us at the Olympics were the teams that had an understanding of how you wanted to play with everybody buying in and playing a certain style,” Pronger said. “Whatever that style is, everybody has to buy in.”
Pronger said one of Team Canada GM Doug Armstrong’s biggest challenges is to select players that are adaptable. Armstrong must talk to other NHL GMs and determine if a player will buy in when asked to play a different role.
“You look at guys like Eric Staal and Rick Nash; they weren’t offensive juggernauts at the Olympics, they were checkers,” Pronger said. “They played a checking role. You have to be able to check your ego aside and do what is best for the team.”
Players are willing to take on roles that are different from what they do with their NHL team because they want to play on the team. Dale Hawerchuk had produced a total of 437 points in the four seasons leading up to the 1987 Canada Cup and yet he was willing to take on the role of being a checker to play on Team Canada.
“That is what players are willing to do because they want to be a part of it,” Pronger said. “They know it might be a special team and they want to be associated with it. They want to be part of what could be a great team.”
On any championship team, whether it’s a Stanley Cup champion or Olympic champion, goaltending is critical no matter what, Pronger said.
“You can have the best team in the world, but if you have crappy goaltending, you’re screwed,” Pronger said.
At the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Canada had offensive weapons the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman and Eric Lindros, as well as shootout specialist Ray Bourque. The Czech Republic had a goaltender named Dominic Hasek.
Guess who won the gold medal?
Canada simply could not solve Hasek in the semi-final. Nor could the other opponents of the Czech Republic, which shocked the hockey world by winning gold.
When Canada won the gold medal at the 2014 Olympics, it was Carey Price driving the bus. Indeed Canada had a wealth of offensive talent, but scoring did not come easy to the team. It was Price game after game who saved the day.
A quick scan of the rosters that have been announced for the 2016 World Cup suggests to many that Sweden could be a serious threat to win the tournament, not only because it has so many skilled forwards, but also because Henrik Lundqvist can steal games.
Off the ice:
Pronger said what happens off the ice can affect what happens on it. Canada’s management team is keenly aware of this.
At the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, Pronger roomed with and mentored young defenseman Drew Doughty. When the team stayed in the Athlete’s Village at the 1998 and 2002 Olympic Games, all the defencemen stayed in one room.
“They put older guys with younger players to make the younger guys feel more comfortable,” Pronger said. “Guys that have been there before to help guys that are new to the process. If you are a younger player, it’s not that you are intimidated, but you are fragile. You don’t want to screw it up for the older guys. You want to play at a high level, but if you’re not there right away, the older guys can play a huge role in helping you along.”
It isn’t always the team that has the best players that wins in short tournaments. Sometimes it is the team that quickly overcomes obstacles.