CALGARY – They know what the expectations are, now it’s up to Canada’s Olympic hockey hopefuls to prove they deserve to play at the 2010 Winter Games.
As Team Canada’s orientation camp wrapped up Thursday, the 40-plus invitees were starting to look ahead to the opening months of an NHL season. They know their performance in those games will go a long way in determining who gets a coveted spot on the 23-man roster in Vancouver.
Fortunately, everyone should have a good idea of what it’s going to take. Steve Yzerman’s management team and Mike Babcock’s coaching staff ran an extremely organized camp and made their expectations very clear.
The message seems to have got through.
“They’ve been very up front of what they’re looking for and what they want,” said defenceman Dion Phaneuf. “After this camp, you go back to your respective teams and you play your style of game – that’s all you can do is play your game, do your job for your team and give yourself the best chance to make (the Olympic squad).”
Babcock hopes to have laid the foundation here for a successful run at the Vancouver Games. He’s placed an emphasis on identifying the best “200-foot players” – the ones who are willing to skate hard at both ends of the ice and play a fast, up-tempo game.
The camp included a number of spirited practices that focused on everything from breakouts to special teams before wrapping up Thursday night with a scrimmage in front of a sellout crowd at Pengrowth Saddledome.
Goalies stole the show during the surprisingly entertaining scrimmage, with Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur each making spectacular stops to bring the crowd to its feet. Ryan Smyth and Corey Perry scored for Team Red while Jeff Carter and Patrick Marleau replied for Team White in a 2-2 tie.
While there was little to take from an exhibition game in August that will matter during the selection process, it did bring a fun ending to a camp that seemed to be a positive experience for all involved.
“The biggest thing as a player is you want to come in here and learn as much as you can and understand it,” said forward Sidney Crosby. “It’s one thing to be told a bunch of things, but you really have to absorb it and know what the goal is. I think we’re all pretty clear on that.
“I think it’s pretty easy to say it’s been a success over the last few days.”
Crosby is one of a handful of players considered a lock to make the team and will be counted on to play a starring role in February. Judging by the way Babcock arranged his forward lines during the four-day orientation camp, Crosby will likely have Rick Nash on one of his wings to start the Olympics.
The coach also hinted that Scott Niedermayer – who appears to have found the fountain of youth and had a strong camp – might end up being the team’s captain.
Olympic veterans Jarome Iginla, Chris Pronger, Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo are all strong bets to be back again. A group of young up-and-comers and older, more established players will battle for the remaining spots.
Many of the players were happy just to be given the chance to come to Calgary and participate in the orientation camp.
“There’s probably 30 guys who didn’t get invited that you could argue could be on the team,” said forward Shane Doan.
One major hurdle for the bubble players moving forward will be trying not to spend much time thinking about where they might sit on the depth chart. That’s probably be easier said than done.
“You can drive yourself crazy,” said forward Milan Lucic. “You try not to think about it too much.”
The Canadian team will have just one practice together in Vancouver before opening the tournament with a game against Norway on Feb. 16. Canada will be looking to improve on a dismal seventh-place finish at the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.
Because he will have little prep time next February, Babcock did his best to present a specific vision about how the team will play during the orientation camp. That was a different approach than the one taken by Pat Quinn’s coaching staff ahead of the past two Games.
“There was a little bit more teaching this time around,” said Pronger, a three-time Olympian. “Just from a systems point of view and a style of play, really trying to bang it into guys’ heads how Mike wants us to play from goaltenders out.”
There was also plenty of emphasis on team-building.
The players took time to play golf or go fishing together during the day and ate dinner together each evening. Past experience has proven that a sense of camaraderie among the team is extremely important during a short tournament.
“The Olympics, once they do come, they just happen right away,” said Iginla, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
Prior to everyone flying back to their respective homes, Yzerman oversaw a meeting that included all of the team executives and coaches. It was a final chance for them to sit in the same room and go over a game plan that they hope will prove golden.
It’s starting to sink in just how close the Games are.
“Really this is our last opportunity to get together as a group as well before getting to Vancouver,” said Yzerman. “We’ll talk a lot on the phone, we’ll talk in groups of two or three, but having everyone together – (this was the last) chance to talk about the players and where we go from here.”
The players essentially have 20-25 regular season games to prove they belong at the Olympics.
Yzerman’s management team will be paying close attention to the opening months of the season before unveiling the final roster in late December. The clock is ticking.
“I think the players really understand how important October, November and December are,” said assistant coach Ken Hitchcock. “They know this is the chance of a lifetime.”