CALGARY, Alberta -- A little ball hockey, eh?
Team Canada took to the floor-covered ice Monday for "walk-through" practices, which is the coaching staff's unique solution to a tough situation given the inability to actually get on the ice for real practices.
The 45 players were split into two groups and ran around with their sticks in their hands playing out drills from the coaching staff while wearing track shorts, T-shirts and running shoes.
Kudos to head coach Mike Babcock for the clever solution for a tough predicament.
"I thought it was a real good day for us,” Babcock said. "Obviously, I have never done this before. We've put a lot of planning into it. I spent a lot of time talking to people to gather the information -- [head coach] Tom Izzo in particular with Michigan State basketball. He talks about the walk-throughs, and [they are] part of the reason that he believes they've been to six Final Fours in the last 15 years. Todd Downing is a quarterback coach with the Lions. He talked about the plays they walk through each and every day and the muscle memory and the timing and spacing that's going on.
"This is a big sheet, and guys aren't used to it. It's even bigger when you can't move very fast, and you couldn't go very fast today. But I thought it was a good teaching tool. The other thing is when you've got 23 guys on your team, you usually got to teach 23 different ways. Everybody learns different, so when you see it on video, it's one way you see it. In a book, it's another way. You've got a posting on the wall, you walk through it again and then you talk about it. To me, what we're trying to do is get them to understand the way we're going to play, so it meets the comfort for them when they arrive in Sochi."
It’s early, folks, but, for the heck of it, here were the lines:
"Don’t read anything into the lines," Babcock cautioned.
Joe Thornton’s absence from the camp (family illness) left Hall and Jordan Staal lined up with a University of Calgary player, Dylan Walchuk.
Talk about a thrill for the college player.
"I know. It's pretty sweet. Maybe I'll see myself on TV tonight if I get lucky," Walchuk said.
So much is going to play out over the next few months before Team Canada picks the team. It’s hard to tell a whole lot from these lines when you consider that most of the line combinations at the camp four years ago didn’t hold water come the Olympics in Vancouver four months later.
Still, there were some interesting looks Monday, such as Nash back on a line with Toews. That duo was Canada’s most effective forward combo by the end of that gold-medal tournament in 2010, with Toews being named the tournament’s top forward. So it’s natural for the coaching staff to want to see those guys back together.
Crosby had his trusted Pittsburgh Penguins linemate Kunitz on his left side Monday, an obvious fit. I still think Kunitz is in tough to make the team, but if he lights it up in the fall like he did last season, he’s got a shot, especially when you consider how difficult it was for the coaching staff in Vancouver to find players who could mesh with the world’s top player.
"This is the best of the best," Kunitz said. "It's awesome. I've never been to an All-Star Game or one of these things. This is a great thing to be a part of, but if I want a chance to go to that team, I have to play my game and have as much success as I did last year moving on and have to earn my way on the team."
Sharp’s inclusion on the line is also intriguing. He’s a long shot for most people to make the team, although I would put him on the team if it were up to me. Sharp is a versatile player who can play all three forward positions, and, on a team that’s going to have a lot of centers playing out of position on the wing, I think he’d be a valuable addition.
Whether or not Sharp was on the Crosby line for no other reason than Claude Giroux not being here in camp, who knows. But I like Sharp on that line.
But easily the most intriguing line Tuesday for me was Tavares between Couture and Stamkos. Wowsers. That’s a young and talented combination, and Couture brings in a bit of defensive protection with his two-way game. That’s a line I could certainly live with.
But again, so much will change between now and February.
To me, the locks on defense are Alex Pietrangelo, Duncan Keith, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty -- and perhaps Jay Bouwmeester. Then, the final three jobs are up for grabs among P.K. Subban, Dan Boyle, Kris Letang, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Marc Methot and Dan Hamhuis.
Crosby is an avid hockey history student. It’s not lost on him the chance at hand next February with the Olympic tournament staged in Russia, Canada’s historical hockey rival.
Not since the famous 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the former Soviet Union has there been a more meaningful game played in Russia between the two rivals played than if the two countries tangle next February.
"I can remember being 15 in Shattuck [Minn.], and J.P. Parise was there, and I remember some of the stories he would tell,” Crosby said. "I was always kind of wondering if I’d even have a chance to play in Russia and, up to this point, I haven’t. To have that opportunity and knowing the history is there to be part of that would be definitely very special. It’s something we’re all well aware of and want to make happen."
Wayne Gretzky has often said that one of his regrets in his career was not having a chance to play an important international game in Russia. The Great One was part of those great Canada Cup games against the former Soviet Union, but those games were always held in Canada.
"That’s a pretty special opportunity for those Canadian players if they get to play Russia in Sochi," Gretzky told ESPN.com Sunday.
Old man Boyle
The gray speckles on Boyle's beard reveal the veteran defenseman’s experience in this camp. At 37, the San Jose Sharks blueliner is the second-oldest player here in camp behind only St. Louis.
"I’ve got a lot of D-men telling me that I was their favorite D-man growing up,’’ Boyle chuckled Monday. "I’m sure I’ll be asked about my age from here on in. It bothers me, but what can you do? I play with guys who are 25 who are icing their backs. It’s not always about age. Look at Marty."
Don’t be fooled, though. Boyle can still play at this level, and he’ll be an interesting decision for Team Canada. He’s an asset on the big ice, and his experience is important, too. But the Canadian management staff will watch him carefully in the opening months of the NHL season to make sure they don’t see any signs of slowing down.
"I know the experts haven’t picked me to make the team," Boyle laughed, using his fingers to show quotation marks around the word experts. "I don’t put too much thought into that. I’ve been doing this my whole career, being counted out forever. I’m probably not expected [to make it], but, obviously, I’d love to be part of it. I know what I can bring to this team."
Team Canada will have some new faces on its roster, and having some experience in the room will be important.
"I think so, too," Boyle said. "Oddly enough, the gold-medal game in Vancouver was the calmest I was in the whole tournament. I was more nervous in the preliminary games. I watched the gold-medal game again a few months ago, and I was happy [with his performance]. I think you need that. I think that’s where experience comes in."
Smith cuts hair
Barely recognizable Monday was goalie Mike Smith. Gone was his long hair.
What’s up with that?
"I’m 31 years old with two kids. Time to grow up," he chuckled.
Smith has a solid shot of making this team. Of interest is that he was invited here by Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman, whom he played for in Tampa Bay before getting waived and leaving via free agency. Yzerman had hoped to re-sign Smith, but he chose to go to Phoenix.
But as far as Smith is concerned, he left on good terms.
"When I left, there weren’t any hard feelings,” he said. "I hadn’t really deserved the chance to stick around. There were bumps along the road in Tampa, and I never really found my niche. I went to Phoenix and developed more into the guy I thought I could be. But the way it was handled in Tampa was first class. Steve and the whole organization handled it with the most respect they could give me. I’m fortunate for that."
Keith looking for more glory
He’s got two Stanley Cup rings, and now he’s aiming for a second Olympic gold medal.
Star blueliner Keith is far from satisfied with his current haul.
"They’re both very special experiences,” Keith said Monday. "When you win a Stanley Cup, I dreamed about that sort of thing when I was a kid. To be able to do that after a long season and a long grind is definitely rewarding. At the same time, when you play on an Olympic team, you’re representing your country, and it’s a huge honor in itself to have that jersey on. To win an Olympic gold medal, it means you’re the best team in the world at that time. It’s a special feeling.
"They’re both special. They’re both unique feelings. Any time you win a championship, it’s the best feeling in the world. I mean, a win’s a win, right?"
Keith was partnered with Weber in Monday’s walk-through/ball hockey practice.
Bouwmeester was part of Canada’s Olympic team in 2006 but was passed over for 2010.
Now he wants back in.
“You'd like to be there,” he said Monday. "That's the goal for everyone. I think you learn from that. From that, you learn it's a process, and you can't worry about it. If you're picked and get to go, great. But there are a lot of great players.”
It could be an exciting year for him. His St. Louis Blues were picked by The Hockey News to win the Stanley Cup, to which Bouwmeester responded Monday:
“I guess that's better than being on the bottom. I think the Toronto Blue Jays were picked to win the World Series, weren't they? I wouldn't put a lot of faith into it.”
Ouch, Jays fans.
Still, the Blues are definitely a team that’s knocking at the door.
“We're still fairly young, but everybody's kinda past that learning stage,” Bouwmeester said. "You've got a group that's probably going to be together at least a few years, at least the majority of guys. It seems like a good opportunity.”