Cross Checks: Sochi Olympic Games
January, 8, 2014
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com
Wayne Gretzky followed Team Canada’s roster unveiling Tuesday and got some amusing commentary from son Trevor, which drove home the point of how difficult it is to limit your choices to 25 players for the country that produces the most NHLers in the world.
"My son, who is 21, who doesn’t follow hockey all that much, was showing me the second team that Canada could have put together, which would have been pretty good. So, even kids down here are talking about it," Gretzky, chuckling, relayed to ESPN.com on Wednesday via phone from the Los Angeles area.
Well, he can laugh now. He no longer has the weight of a hockey-crazed nation on his shoulders, the way he had when he selected the 2002 and 2006 Canadian Olympic teams, one that snapped the country's 50-year Olympic gold-medal drought (in Salt Lake City), the other that faltered in Torino. He lived both extremes.
So twice having been in executive director Steve Yzerman’s shoes, Gretzky certainly has a unique vantage point as he observed Team Canada’s roster selections.
"I really think he put together a good team," Gretzky said. "He’s got skill, he’s got size, he’s got depth, he’s got a good coaching staff, and they’ve done all their homework. They’ve done everything they can do. Now it’s up to the players to play at the level that they need to play at to bring back the gold medal."
The Great One believes Yzerman and his staff did a good job of avoiding any real obvious controversy with most of their choices.
"There was really no controversy on the three goalies. Those are the three guys, and with the ability to have eight defensemen instead of seven, there really wasn’t any talk about so-and-so was left off," Gretzky said.
"Obviously [at forward] there’s three or four guys that people are talking about that didn’t make it like [Logan] Couture, [Milan] Lucic, [Claude] Giroux and [Martin] St. Louis. Problem is, you’ve got a 25-man roster, not a 31-man roster, and that’s what makes it difficult."
Gretzky believes that’s where the coaching staff is important on those final roster choices.
"I always believed that you have your nine or 10 forwards that you always have. And then you lean on your coaching staff and say, ‘OK, we’ve got six guys here, but you can only have three of them. Which guys are you going to be most comfortable with? If you need a guy for the power play, or there’s two minutes left in the game and you have to defend a one-goal lead and win a big faceoff, which guys are you most comfortable with?’ You really have to lean on what your coaches are going to do on the bench," Gretzky said.
"I’m sure Stevie did the same thing we did where you rely on your coaches for the last few picks in terms of your coaches being most comfortable with certain guys."
The headline grabber was Yzerman’s ultra-difficult decision to leave St. Louis, his Tampa captain, off the roster.
"That’s the hard part," Gretzky said. "I’ve always said that it’s an easy hard job. It’s easy because you’re picking from 50 really good players, so you’ve got an easy task in terms of having a good team. But it’s a hard task in getting down to those final few picks; that’s what really makes it difficult. It’s never fun. It won’t be controversial if they win, but as always, it’ll be controversial if they lose."
Some things don’t change, Gretzky said. Canada will win or lose depending on its very top players.
“In 2010, [Sidney] Crosby stood up and scored the winning goal. [Goalie Roberto] Luongo played really well. In 2002, [Mario] Lemieux, Yzerman, [Joe] Sakic and [Jarome] Iginla carried the load. So if your best players perform at a high level, then they should be OK. That’s really where it falls. Your role players are important, but ultimately it’s just a fact that if Crosby, [Ryan] Getzlaf and [Jonathan] Toews play to the level they’re capable of playing, then they’re going to have a tremendous run. It’s simple as that. It hasn’t changed since ’72 when Phil Esposito was the best player over eight games. That’s just never changed.”
Speaking of the 1972 Summit Series, Gretzky said that’s what makes the Sochi Olympics so special in his mind from a Team Canada perspective -- the ability for the first time in 42 years to have Canada’s very best pros playing in a best-on-best tournament on Russian soil.
“That in itself will be something nice,” Gretzky said. “We’ve played games in Russia over the years since ’72 but never with our best. This will be a nice opportunity to show the Russian people and the world exactly how good a team we have and how good our players are. I think that’s going to be exciting.’’
Other notes and thoughts on Team Canada:
The Krueger Factor
A real underrated ingredient for Team Canada has been the presence of Ralph Krueger as a consultant to the coaching staff.
“A huge assistance, real smart,” Team Canada coach Mike Babcock told ESPN.com on Tuesday.
Babcock said Krueger was going to join him for three Red Wings games in the next week starting in San Jose on Thursday to update him on what he’s picked up overseas ahead of the Olympics.
The Canadian coaching staff as a whole has raved about his impact since last summer.
Krueger was coach of the Swiss national team for a dozen years, from 1998 through 2010, and his experience with the international game already has proved immeasurable to the Canadian coaches.
Just call him Dr. Big Ice, as Krueger has been central in consulting Canada’s transition to the larger international ice surface, but he’s also been key in other areas, as relayed to ESPN.com Wednesday by Team Canada assistant coach Ken Hitchcock:
“First of all, he’s been giving us video updates on all the tournament games that the countries overseas have been playing,” the St. Louis Blues' coach said. “He’s been following the coaches and the way they play and teach. He has background on all the players that aren’t in the NHL, so we know what they can do and how they look. And then he’s been going over concepts that work in Europe that are effective, that teams are using, that are really a big part of the game over there.
"This is information that’s going to help us in understanding how they’re playing over there on the big ice.”
There seems to be confusion about Logan Couture’s omission from the Canadian roster. Many believed that because he had a hand injury (for which he had surgery Wednesday), Team Canada simply decided the timing wasn’t right.
But in fact, Team Canada sources say, they didn’t allow the injury to play a factor, and in fact judged the roster decision as if he wasn’t hurt. So in other words, even if Couture wasn’t injured, it appears he would have missed out.
Barely, though. A source said Couture was “very, very close” to making the team, and his name was debated late into the conversation Monday night, when Canada made its final roster decisions.
It appears it came down to whether they wanted Couture over Rick Nash or over Patrice Bergeron. Both Bergeron and Couture play similar 200-foot games. Nash was used in a defensive role at Vancouver 2010 as well and played tremendously.
In the end, experience likely gave Nash and Bergeron the nod over Couture, but there also may have been a bit of concern about Couture’s skating ability on the bigger international ice.
Still, the Team Canada brass likes Couture a lot. They value his two-way game and hockey IQ, and management is keeping an eye on his recovery in case there are other roster decisions to be made in the next month.
Obviously it depends which, if any, player gets hurt in the next month, but Team Canada was planning to communicate to several players to make sure they are ready for a possible call. That’s already happened in some cases.
The most likely injury replacements at forward, I believe, are Giroux or James Neal, if Stamkos can’t go. St. Louis also is a possibility.
To a lesser degree, but still on the radar, are the likes of Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner, if it’s for an offensive role.
For a defensive role, I think Couture, if he’s healthy, gets the nod as a replacement.