By Robin Short
Vancouver – Both Steve Yzerman and Bob Nicholson are in agreement NHLers should remain in the next Olympic Games in four years time, but both could be excused if their focus is not on Sochi, Russia, but first this little matter here in Vancouver.
Yzerman, the Canadian Olympic hockey team’s executive director for the 2010 Vancouver Games, and Nicholson, Hockey Canada’s president, staged their first news conference along with other Team Canada officials Saturday. It’s in advance of Canada’s first game of this year’s edition of the Olympics Tuesday night against Norway.
“How important is this tournament?” Yzerman asked. “Well, in terms of hockey, it’s extremely to us.
“We’re here to win. It’s always about winning. Ever since you played minor hockey tournaments, you played to win. In the NHL, you play in the playoffs year in and year out to win.
“The expectations are no different here, only it’s on a much bigger scale.”
But Canada isn’t alone in that regard. As Yzerman noted Saturday, there’ll be no parade mapped out in Moscow if the highly-regarded Russians and their lethal offence don’t return home with gold.
“The expectation in Russia is to win gold. The expectation in Sweden is gold. And whether they want to admit it or not, the U.S. is in this to win gold. We all play to win gold.”
Canada, naturally, enters the tournament a top-flight contender, despite its disappointing – disastrous perhaps? – seventh-place showing four years ago in Torino. In 2002, Canada won gold in Salt Lake City, following a fourth-place showing in Nagano in 1998, the first year the NHL elected to suspend its schedule and allow its players to compete in the NHL.
Yzerman and Co. selected the 2010 roster Dec. 30 and since then there’s been bountiful banter on which players were selected or, more to the point, were was left off.
Since that big announcement during the World Junior Championship in Saskatoon, Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Martin St-Louis, who toiled for Canada in Torino, but was left off the year’s roster, has exploded with 27 points in 20 games. Jay Bouwmeester, a Calgary Flames defenseman with international experience – including Torino – was also left off the roster in favor of 20-year-old Los Angeles Kings rearguard Drew Doughty.
Doughty, to be fair, has piled up 17 points in 20 games since he was named to the squad.
“We can sit here and drive ourselves crazy, saying we should have done this, we should have done that,” Yzerman said. “But there was a lot of hockey watched and a lot of discussions about which players would be the best fit.
“We had to make a decision by Dec. 30 knowing full well a lot of guys would light it up. There’s going to be second-guessing and there’s no way around that.”
But nothing compared to what the Canadian hierarchy will face if this club fizzles as it did in 2006.
Kevin Lowe, an assistant to Yzerman this year, served in the same capacity to Wayne Gretzky in Torino.
The best team, Lowe said, is usually the club that comes out on top. But a hot goalie in a short tournament could derail that logic. As a result, Lowe would prefer a series as opposed to a single game life-or-death showdown.
“The thing is,” Lowe said, “we had good teams at the last two Olympics and one was first and the other was seventh. What does that say? It’s an indication of how we played, but it’s also an indication of how the other teams played.
“Canadians don’t win all the time, unfortunately. But we come with pride and passion and we believe we can win.”
Meanwhile, Yzerman said Ryan Getzlaf’s status remains up in the air. The Ducks center is out with an ankle injury, although he has been skating lightly the past three days.
Olympic rosters are frozen at noon Monday and if Getzlaf can’t go, he’ll be replaced by Jeff Carter of the Philadelphia Flyers.
“We do not believe he is playing tonight,” Yzerman said of Getzlaf. “He will skate again tomorrow and, from our point of view, we will not make a decision today.
“In all likelihood, we’ll wait and see how he does tomorrow. We’ll speak with Ryan, hopefully, later on today. We’re taking this day-to-day.”
As for keeping players contented with their new roles in Vancouver, Yzerman does not foresee it being much of a problem.
Many players, accustomed to getting ample ice time, both on special teams and five-on-five, will see their minutes reduced. Others, perhaps Joe Thornton, will be asked to play a shutdown role instead of an offensive game.
“It comes down to character and we believe we have guys with character,” said Yzerman.
However, one player who will continues to see lots of ice is Penguins star Sidney Crosby. While Anaheim veteran Scott Niedermayer will be wearing the captain’s ‘C,’ most believe this is indeed Crosby’s team.
“He’s a complete player, much like Michael Jordan,” Yzerman said of Canada’s marquee player. “Every year, they tried to find something wrong with his game and he got better and better.
“Not saying there was anything wrong with Sid’s game, but I’ve watched every part of his game improve. We saw him first hand the past two years in the Stanley Cup final, to our dismay. Whether it was faceoffs or defensive play, whatever…what’s he got now, 41 goals?
“He’s a complete hockey player.”