VANCOUVER – Losing some of its top executives leaves Hockey Canada with some big skates to fill. But Canada has the depth of talent to remain a winner on the international stage, says the man who coached the men’s team to back-to-back Olympic gold medals.
“I am really confident,” Detroit Red Wing coach Mike Babcock said Monday. “The group at Hockey Canada have done great things and have lots of different people.
“That’s part of it. Different people get opportunities. They grow from it and they move on. A new group will get an opportunity and that’s great.”
Steve Yzerman, Team Canada’s executive director at the last two Winter Olympics, has already said he will not lead the team at the 2018 Games at Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Bob Nicholson, who spent 16 years as president and chief executive officer of Hockey Canada, stepped down in May to take a job overseeing business operations for the Edmonton Oilers of the NHL. Under Nicholson, Canadian hockey teams won seven Olympic gold medals.
Brad Pascall, Hockey Canada’s vice-president of hockey operations and national teams, has joined the NHL’s Calgary Flames as an assistant general manager.
Yzerman said Nickolson always stressed that Hockey Canada’s role was to develop people for the next level.
“Not only for players, but also for coaches, for managers, for all people,” said Yzerman, the former Detroit star who is now general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I think Bob’s great legacy at Hockey Canada is the structure he set up and the mentality of what we are trying to do in Canada with hockey. Great people will fill those shoes. With Bob Nicholson, those are big skates to fill. But I have no doubt there are tremendous people in this country with a passion and drive. The program will continue to succeed.”
Babcock and Yzerman were in Vancouver as part of the Hockey Canada Foundation Celebrity Classic. A Monday night gala paid tribute to the 2014 Order of Hockey Canada honourees coach Clare Drake, player France St-Louis and Yzerman.
Also attending were members of the Olympic champion men’s team, the women’s team that won gold at the Sochi Olympics in Russia and the team that won the women’s under-18 championship in Budapest.
Babcock said Canada can be proud of its Olympic success but must continue to work hard if the country hopes to remain on top of the podium in four years.
“You take a lot of pride in being the best,” he said. “In order to be the best you have to find the best to win.
“We’re going to have to continue to grow our game over the next four years. If you want to have success at the next Olympics, 2014’s effort won’t be good enough to win the next one. We have to keep getting better.”
The NHL hasn’t committed to sending its players to the 2018 Games. Among the league’s concerns are a 12-hour difference between Pyeongchang and the Eastern Time Zone, taking a break in the middle of the regular season, and the danger of players being injured.
Sidney Crosby, the Canada’s captain in Sochi, understands the problems but still thinks the Olympics are worth the effort.
“I go back to my two experiences,” said Crosby, who scored the Olympic winning goal in overtime in 2010 in Vancouver. “They were pretty good.
“To think of all the things that had to happen to make them work, especially in Russia, it would be a similar case, maybe even a little more difficult the next one. Like I said, representing your country and to have those opportunities, I don’t think that ever gets old, no matter what the situation. As a player, you want to be part of that.”
As a possible alternative to the Olympics, the NHL is discussing with the NHL Players’ Association about holding a World Cup of Hockey tournament in 2016.
Yzerman said a World Cup has the potential to gain the same prestige as an Olympics.
“It will take some time,” he said. “The Olympics have been around for a long time on the world stage. If done right, I can see it being really successful.”
Babcock said the Olympics “are so special” because they are watched by people who are not even hockey fans.
“My mom never watches sports but she watches the Olympics Games,” he said. “People who are not interested in sport still follow it.
“I think it’s the greatest opportunity, best-on-best, to celebrate the sport. It’s something you want to be part of and you want other people to be part of. It’s a thrill of a lifetime.”
All three people named to the Order of Hockey in Canada were recognized for their contributions to the game.
Yzerman played 22 seasons in the NHL and played for Team Canada eight times, including at two Winter Olympics.
As a member of Canada’s national women’s team St-Louis won five world championships and a silver medal at the 1998 Olympics.
In 28 seasons as head coach of the University of Alberta Golden Bears Drake led his teams to six national championships and 17 Canada West titles.
Babcock compared Drake to legendary NCAA basketball coach John Wooden.
“He is one of the builders of hockey in Canada,” said Babcock. “Clare is a gentleman who shared everything he had. He tried to make us all better.
“He led the way so guys like myself, who weren’t NHL players, could one day coach in the NHL.”