Ken Hitchcock had only been Team Canada’s head coach for a couple hours before he was reminded of the challenge that lay ahead at next month’s IIHF World Hockey Championship.
His team will enter the event with the challenge of trying to become the first host country to claim gold since Russia in 1986.
“I didn’t know that,” Hitchcock said during a conference call Tuesday after being named the team’s coach. “And I don’t want to know that.”
Canada is also the defending world champion but it’s safe to say that this tournament will be different because it’s being held here for the first time ever.
The added attention of playing games in Halifax and Quebec City will be one of the main jobs Hitchcock and his coaching staff will have to address with the team.
“We know there’s going to be pressure and stress on everybody,” he said. “We have to learn to embrace it. I think the key thing is to not get overwhelmed by it.
“If you embrace the pressure that goes with playing at home and high expectations, then you can feed off that energy. If you’re overwhelmed by it, then I think it really hurts you.”
He believes that’s what happened when Canada flopped out of the 2006 Turin Olympics with a loss to Russia in the quarter-finals. Hitchcock was an associate coach on that team and held the same role at the 2002 Olympics and 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
This will be his first head coaching assignment for a national team.
Last year’s team was coached by Andy Murray and went undefeated but general manager Steve Yzerman thought it was right time to give Hitchcock a chance at the helm.
“There are so many people to choose from who are very successful and qualified,” said Yzerman, who played for Hitchcock at the 2002 Olympics. “With the opportunity being there, I thought it was important to give Ken the chance to coach the team.”
Hitchcock has yet to choose his assistant coaches and indicated that he would likely wait until the end of the regular season before doing so.
His own Columbus Blue Jackets have already been eliminated from post-season contention and wrap up their regular season on Sunday afternoon. Canada opens training camp in Quebec City on April 24 and plays its first world championship game on May 2 in Halifax.
Yzerman and assistant GMs Luc Robitaille and Doug Armstrong have already started contacting players on NHL teams that will miss the playoffs.
Reports have surfaced that a wrist injury will keep Tampa Bay Lightning star Vincent Lecavalier out of the event, although Yzerman says he has yet to receive official word.
Other players likely to receive an early invite are Rick Nash and Shane Doan, who was drawn into a controversy last year by politicians who were angry that he was captain of Canada’s team after being linked to an unsubstantiated comment against Francophones.
“I haven’t asked him if he intends to play or wants to play, but I will call him,” said Yzerman. “If he wants to play, he’s not going to let that (controversy) stand in his way.”
There are several reasons why this is an important event for Canada. The tournament will serve as an Olympic qualifier so a good result could go a long way to making the task easier for the 2010 team in Vancouver.
This is also a chance for everyone involved to prove they should be part of the Olympic program two years down the road. Yzerman believes the experiences of players like Ryan Smyth, Kurt Maltby and Kris Draper should provide incentive for guys to join this team.
“Everyone is watching and it’s a chance to prove yourself in the international game,” he said. “It is only going to benefit you if your desire is to play on the Olympic team.”
Hitchcock has spent the past 12 years as an NHL head coach with Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus. He won the Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1999.
He is known as a demanding coach that goes to great lengths to motivate his players. Armstrong saw that first-hand while working in the Stars front office during Hitchcock’s tenure as head coach.
“I think that working with Ken the one thing you always felt comfortable with was that your team was going to be prepared and that they were going to work to the maximum of their abilities and their efforts,” he said.
Hitchcock says that team will be used as a blueprint when assembling this team, with a mix of young and old players. He also believes that guys will be more eager to participate because the event is in Canada.
“I think a lot of players are going to want to play,” said Hitchcock. “It’s our playoffs now. Starting here at the end of April, these are our playoffs.
“I’ve found (that the playoffs) in these competitions matter as much or more than any NHL playoffs do.”
Those past experiences have given him a clear understanding of what this role will involve.
“I think the players have enough pressure on them already,” said Hitchcock. “It’s our job to make sure we keep it off them.”