CALGARY – An NHL coach can only ever dream of assembling a top line with as much star power as the Canadian Olympic team.
Consider that Mike Babcock had Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash skating together during the first two days of practice at Olympic orientation camp. It’s a unit that combined for 108 goals and 271 points last season and will make US$23 million between them this year – more money than any NHL team could justify spending on one forward line in a salary-cap system.
Needless to say, the unit has caught the attention of everyone during practices at Pengrowth Saddledome.
“That’s pretty scary,” forward Jordan Staal said Tuesday. “When you see those three guys on one line – three star players on their own team and obviously star players throughout the world – it’s something scary.
“You don’t want to be lining up against those three.”
Even though Babcock has cautioned against reading too much into his line pairings during the four-day camp, it’s not a stretch to think that Crosby, Iginla and Nash might be skating together again at the Olympics in February.
Assistant coach Ken Hitchcock thinks Crosby should be used at his natural centre position in Vancouver and it’s hard to imagine anyone else being slotted ahead of him. As arguably the best natural Canadian wingers, Iginla and Nash are good bets to be part of the top unit as well.
For his part, Crosby is happy no matter who he lines up with.
“I don’t think you can complain about anybody you play with here,” he said. “But to play with those two guys has been pretty fun.”
It’s been strange watching the Pittsburgh Penguins star skating around at the camp in a No. 37 jersey. The practice uniforms are the same ones normally used by the world junior team and there wasn’t one available with his traditional No. 87.
Like most of the 40-plus players in camp, Crosby has been amazed by the tempo during the first two days of practice. He’s thrilled with the pace so far.
“It’s healthy, guys just want to have fun with it,” said Crosby. “Every guy out here is competitive. It doesn’t mean they’re trying to go out there and show anybody up. They’re just excited for the opportunity to be here and they want to do their best.
“Everyone has fun when you’re doing well.”
The camp didn’t turn out to be much fun for forward Simon Gagne, a member of the past two Canadian Olympic teams. He was forced to return to Philadelphia after just one day to have a sore groin examined by team doctors.
Gagne had hip surgery over the summer and wanted to be cautious.
“I spoke to him this morning – he was disappointed, but at the same time he wants to be ready for the start of the season and doesn’t want to have lingering problems,” said Flyers teammate Mike Richards.
After sitting out the first practice with a sore back, goaltender Cam Ward made it through a full workout on Tuesday. The 44 players left skating at camp have been split into two groups for the on-ice sessions and will play a scrimmage against one another before the camp wraps up on Thursday night.
There’s been plenty of evidence that the guys are enjoying the time spent on the ice. The first practice group started almost 10 minutes earlier than scheduled on Tuesday while guys like Ryan Smyth and Stephane Robidas continued to skate around long after the second session finished up.
“I just love being on the ice and being around the guys,” said Smyth, whose 85 games with the national team is the most of any player in camp. “This game is all about fun. … You can learn so much watching these guys. Being on the same ice surface, you can see the little nifty plays that they do.”
Many of those plays have been happening at top speed.
It’s pretty clear that most of the guys have been skating on their own in recent weeks to prepare for the quick pace of the camp. Most NHLers aren’t usually in this good of shape a full five weeks before the start of the regular season.
“I think your competitive nature takes over and you all want to do well, compare yourselves,” said forward Brendan Morrow. “I know our practices in Dallas, the tempo’s not the same as that. I’m not sure if Detroit practices like that every day – if they do, that’s probably why they have the success they do.”
The players have shown plenty of attention to detail away from the rink as well.
Overall, the camp has had a real business-like feel as everyone involved attempts to put his best foot forward. Hitchcock, back for his third Olympics, thinks it’s been the best of the orientation sessions he’s attended.
“I think you see it in the way that the (players) watch the video and listen during the presentations – they’re absorbing everything,” said Hitchcock. “They know that this is the chance of a lifetime. They want to be at their best.”
Most of the time, anyway.
After the practice sessions wrapped up on Tuesday, the players all headed out together for a round of golf. Crosby, for one, was happy to report that he’s not as successful on the links as he has been on the ice.
“Our last couple seasons have (made for) short summers and the golf game hasn’t been much good,” said Crosby. “I’d like to leave it that way. That’s fine with me.”