It promises to be an important year for Steve Yzerman.
Even though the Olympic hockey tournament won’t truly take the spotlight until 2010, the decisions Yzerman has to oversee in the coming months will play a huge role in determining if the Canadian team wins gold in Vancouver.
There’s a coaching staff to appoint, an evaluation camp to be held and final roster decisions to be made. All of those things will happen in 2009.
As a result, it should be no surprise that the team’s executive director is already dedicating a considerable amount of focus to the job. He’s embraced the demanding role.
“I’m excited about being a part of this and I want to do this,” Yzerman said in November. “I understand the disappointment if we don’t win but it won’t be because we weren’t prepared.”
The wheels are well in motion.
Earlier this month, Yzerman met executives Ken Holland, Kevin Lowe and Doug Armstrong in Montreal to start serious discussions about what the team might look like. They narrowed their player list down to a group of roughly 40 guys who will be watched closely during the second half of the NHL season.
The task of choosing the team is the toughest part of the job, but it’s not the only thing the group must consider. Yzerman hopes to have his coaching staff in place by the end of the spring and plans to hold a camp for prospective players in late August.
There’s a lot to accomplish over a short amount of time.
The Olympic executives will also keep a close eye on how things unfold at the IIHF World Hockey Championship in Switzerland this April and May. Armstrong will serve as general manger of the Canadian team and is looking to bring as many potential Olympic hopefuls as he can.
The tournament offers players one final chance to demonstrate their value in international competition before the Canadian Olympic team is selected. However, the world championship will be more than just a tuneup for the Vancouver Games.
“It is a feeder system and a proving ground for players that would like to make the Olympic team,” said Armstrong. “But with that being said, our focus isn’t the Olympics. Our focus is the world championship.
“It’s not a trial for the Olympic team, it’s a team we’re trying to put together to win a gold medal.”
The failure to accomplish that in 2008 ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of the past year for guys like Armstrong and Yzerman.
They both helped assemble the team that competed in the first world hockey championship ever held in Canada last May, but could only watch helplessly as Ilya Kovalchuk scored in overtime to give Russia the gold.
It was not the wild celebratory scene the sellout crowd at Quebec’s Le Colisee Pepsi had been anticipating. Alex Ovechkin and a few Russian teammates dug up a lucky toonie that had been frozen under centre ice while Canadian players hung their heads and tried not to look at the silver medals they’d just been given.
Every Canadian hockey fan knows that it’s gold or bust for our national teams.
That disappointing experience will provide just an extra hint of motivation for the men in charge of the 2010 Olympic team. Even though the world championship receives nowhere near as much attention in this country, the gold-medal loss was one that team GM Yzerman clearly took hard.
Fortunately for him, it was soon followed by a completely different feeling.
Yzerman earned his fourth Stanley Cup ring in June – and first as a member of the front office – when the Detroit Red Wings knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins during a six-game championship series. His elation obviously didn’t match that of the players, but Yzerman wore a wide grin while sipping a celebratory drink in the bowels of Mellon Arena that night.
Only a few hundred metres away in the Penguins locker-room, Sidney Crosby had tears in his eyes while trying to make sense of a loss in his first trip to the Stanley Cup final. It’s not a feeling he’ll ever want to experience again – whether it be with the Penguins or while wearing the Maple Leaf.
A look around the top levels of professional hockey over the past year demonstrates just how tough the competition will be at the Olympic tournament in 2010.
European players had all kinds of success. Henrik Zetterberg, a Swede, won the Conn Smythe Trophy on a Red Wings team that included countryman Nicklas Lidstrom and Russia’s Pavel Datsuyk, among others.
At the NHL awards ceremony, Ovechkin became the first Russian to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top point-getter. He was also named league MVP and given the Rocket Richard Trophy for being the NHL’s leading goal-scorer.
Another Russian, Evgeni Malkin, is currently on top of the scoring chart.
A couple other hockey highlights in 2008 included:
– Matt Halischuk’s overtime goal to give Canada a fourth straight gold medal at the world junior championship;
– Gold medal wins for Canada at both major world under-18 tournaments;
– Canada’s unbeaten run and gold medal victory at the sledge hockey world championship;
– And finally, a big nod to championship teams from all around North America: Chicago Wolves (American Hockey League), Spokane Chiefs (Canadian Hockey League), Alberta Golden Bears (Canadian Interuniversity Sport), Brampton Canadettes Thunder (Canadian Women’s Hockey League), Calgary Oval X-Treme (Western Women’s Hockey League), Cincinnati Cyclones (ECHL), Arizona Sundogs (Central Hockey League) and Fort Wayne Komets (International Hockey League).