OTTAWA – Steve Yzerman is about to face the kind of scrutiny usually reserved for leaders on Parliament Hill.
In accepting the job of executive director for the 2010 Canadian Olympic men’s hockey team, he has agreed to become the face of this country’s entry at one of the most anticipated international hockey tournaments ever played. And he knows exactly what’s at stake.
“My message to Canadians is that I understand completely what the expectations of this team are,” Yzerman said at a news conference on Saturday. “I understand what the goal is. Each and every one of us up here … all fully understand the expectations. We understand the passion that all Canadians have and we share in that passion – we’re one in the same.
“Our goals are no different than yours. We understand that a gold medal is the expectation and we’re prepared for that.”
He’ll have a strong management staff to assist in the quest for gold.
Veteran executives Ken Holland and Kevin Lowe will serve as associate directors to Yzerman while Doug Armstrong will be the director of player personnel. Wayne Gretzky, who held the executive director’s job at the past two Olympics, will serve as an adviser.
Those four men have combined to win 15 Stanley Cups as either players or executives and have been part of too many Canadian national teams to count. Yzerman will lean heavily on each of them over the next 16 months.
“We will work together on every decision,” he said. “The reason I have these gentlemen on this staff is because they’re winners, they know how to build a team (and) they have strong opinions. I welcome their opinions.
“I think it’s very important that everybody understands that we are a group and we will work through this together.”
The group met for a couple hours on Saturday morning and will now have the Vancouver Olympics on their minds for the next 16 months.
They hope to have the coaching staff in place by the end of the current NHL season and want to hold a training camp next summer for prospective players. The team will likely be named in December 2009.
As always, difficult choices lie ahead.
“The decisions they’re going to have to make are going to be really tough ones,” said Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson. “The expectations of the fans in this country are going to be over the moon in Vancouver.”
It will be Yzerman’s job to try and deflect some of the attention away from his players. Gretzky’s finest moment as executive director came in Salt Lake City when he gave a passionate speech to the media after his team got off to a slow start at the event. The team went on to win Canada’s first Olympic gold in men’s hockey in 50 years.
The position calls for someone who can make tough decisions while also representing the team publicly. Yzerman got a small taste of that as Canada’s general manager at the last two IIHF World Hockey Championships, where his team won gold in 2007 and silver in 2008.
Even though the world championship is often overlooked in Canada, Yzerman is still smarting from the overtime loss his Canadian team suffered to Russia in the gold-medal game in May. That was just another reminder that top-level international hockey is as competitive now as its ever been.
Six different countries have played for gold in the three Olympic Games involving NHL players. More than anything else, Gretzky believes that depth will pose the biggest challenge to Yzerman’s team in 2010.
“It’s a tough situation because there’s so many good teams now,” Gretzky said in Montreal. “There’s six teams now that could probably win a gold medal if their goaltender plays at the level he’s capable of.
“It’s a pressure situation, but they’ll have a good team and they’ll pick a good coaching staff and they have good leadership from players like (Vincent) Lecavalier and (Sidney) Crosby and guys like that. So we should be fine.”
Of course, the recent experience for Canadian teams at the Olympics hasn’t always been positive.
Yzerman played on the 1998 team that lost in a shootout to the Czech Republic in the semifinals. He didn’t get a chance to take a shootout attempt against Dominik Hasek but remembers how nervous he was watching from the bench and plans to share that with his team in 2010.
“You’re all nervous – people are going to lie and say, ‘I’m not nervous,”‘ said Yzerman. “Everybody’s nervous but then you go out and you do it.”
Of course, he’ll also be willing to talk about how good it felt to win gold in 2002.
Even though Yzerman wasn’t involved with the underperforming 2006 team that lost in the quarter-finals to Russia, he won’t have to look far to speak to people who were. Lowe was an assistant to Gretzky and thinks the Canadians faltered because they weren’t fast enough.
“I think we really saw a shift in the overall world game and the NHL game from 2002 to 2006,” said Lowe. “If perhaps we made a mistake, it was in estimating the ability of players to move the puck and mobility.
“(That was) evidenced by the way the Russians beat us in that game with youthful exuberance and high skill level.”
As a result, there should be no shortage of youth and exuberance wearing the Maple Leaf in Vancouver.
There’s no doubt that the players will feel the weight of expectations on home soil but the management team hopes it can keep that from hindering the group.
“Pressure to me is worrying about failing,” said Holland. “I think when you get into something like this, you don’t even think about failing. You only think about succeeding.”
That message certainly seems to have made its way to Yzerman.
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said of the job. “I’m excited about being a part of this and I want to do this. I understand the disappointment if we don’t win but it won’t be because we weren’t prepared. I’m not worried about the (expectations), I’ll deal with that.”