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|Now a Team Canada veteran, Drew Doughty is ready to lead his country's gold medal chase.|
Was it really four years ago that people around the hockey world were arching their eyebrows at his inclusion on the Canadian Olympic team headed to Vancouver?
You can be excused if you don't remember that.
What you probably do remember is that by the end of that tournament, when Sidney Crosby snapped home that overtime goal to send Canada into a paroxysm of jubilation, Doughty was on the ice with the national hero -- not just a member of the Canadian team but a key piece in the gold-medal puzzle.
Doughty remembers it all, of course, even if he too is a bit perplexed by the whole space-time continuum.
"It doesn't seem like that long ago," Doughty told a pair of visiting reporters during a recent pregame interview. "Time's just flown by now. Here I am I guess four years later, or whatever it is, and that was one of the best experiences in my life to that point."
On the eve of another Olympic tournament, Doughty is no longer the "holy cow, did he really make the team" kid, but a lock from the get-go to try to help Canada defend gold in Sochi.
Instead, other youngsters will be approaching this tournament with more than a little trepidation -- whether it's a promising young defender like Olli Maatta, the Pittsburgh rookie selected to Finland's national team, or young Americans like Cam Fowler and Justin Faulk, or Doughty's new Canada teammates Alex Pietrangelo and P.K. Subban.
All young players will face the same kind of dynamics at the Sochi Olympics, but the learning curve is even more pronounced for young defensemen.
"Being the young guy, I was a little nervous going in there," Doughty said of his Vancouver experience. "Didn't really know any of the guys, was new to everyone. But at the same time, I was so happy to be a part of that team, and whatever role they were going to give me, I was ready to play it. I kind of came in there as the seventh guy and kind of worked my way up. I think that's what the other young guys can look forward to."
Oh, that those other youngsters would have the same experience, the same accelerated success. Doughty recalls a moment early in the tournament when Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman took him aside and offered some advice.
"A lot of the guys, they were always complimenting me and they were telling me good things, just kind of giving me some of their experience they had had at previous Olympics," Doughty recalled. "But the one moment I really remember is Steve Yzerman came up to me after one of the games, and he could kind of see that I was kind of playing timid, I was just making easy passes, I wasn't rushing the puck like I do, I wasn't taking chances like I do.
"He told me I was on the team to be a difference-maker and to be the player I am with the L.A. Kings. From that point on, I just played with no regrets and I was myself out there and I started to play really well."
What did that experience mean, long term? Saying it meant everything might be an oversimplification. Or it might just be right on.
"I learned so much kind of playing with some of the other defensemen there," Doughty said. "I had Scott Niedermayer, he was one of my favorite defensemen growing up as well. He was unbelievable. And to have Chris Pronger and Dan Boyle, and then after that we kind of had some other young guys who had never experienced it yet either.
"Just being able to watch them play, seeing how well they could play at both ends of the ice, kind of made me realize that I wanted to be that exact same player."
Doughty added: "I wanted to be relied on in all key situations, no matter what it is. I think that's one thing I really took from that, is that I really wanted to be those guys. And I'm looking forward to being one."
And if there are elements to his current game that hark back to Niedermayer, Boyle or Pronger, well, that's no coincidence either.
"From watching Niedermayer play around, he's not going to be physical, he's so good positionally, so from him I learned the positional stuff," Doughty said. "And watching Prongs play, how good his stick is and how physical he can be. And watching Dan Boyle play. He's one of my favorite players to watch. To this day when we play against him, I'm on the bench I'm watching him rather than my team, which is probably the wrong thing to do."
|Drew Doughty has had plenty to smile about since making Team Canada in 2010.|
That the Olympics might represent some sort of uber-classroom, the kind of environment where the learning curve suddenly shoots off into the clouds, doesn't mean it happens simply by osmosis. There has to be a dedicated learner and there have to be people from whom to learn; or rather people who are willing to share what knowledge they possess.
"When you're a young player you just play; you play on your talent," Ken Hitchcock, head coach of the St. Louis Blues and a Team Canada assistant in 2002, '06, '10 and '14, told ESPN.com. When the stakes are high, as they are in the Olympics, the game requires "a really high level of preparation, focus and discipline."
Hitchcock said that those veteran players Doughty spoke of not only taught the rest of the blue line corps, but they taught everyone on the Canada roster how to deal with those challenges. They taught players like Doughty not to lose focus, not to waste energy, not to let frustration get the better of them, he said.
"Younger players who've never been through this get confused," Hitchcock said. "What the Olympics do is they make you grow up in a hurry."
Which is what we saw from Doughty four years ago. Hitchcock, whose team has played the Kings in the playoffs two years in a row, delivers a rueful laugh.
"Unfortunately for us in the Western Conference, that helped him a lot," he said.
If the time has passed quickly on one plane, there has also been a time of great learning and evolving for Doughty. He and the Kings stormed from the eighth seed to a Stanley Cup championship in 2012, a run in which Doughty elevated his game to a point where he was among a select group considered for the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
"I used that experience of the gold-medal game throughout the whole playoff experience when we won the Cup," Doughty said. "I wasn't nervous at all -- ever. We went into many OT games, it didn't faze me. It was just fun, wanted to win the game so bad. Didn't feel the pressure."
Does he imagine that he might become that kind of player to a youngster like Pietrangelo or Subban, who are Olympic rookies and rising young NHL stars -- not much different from the Drew Doughty of four years ago? It's something that definitely appeals.
"In a way, I'm obviously not at the point that those three other guys were at, but I'm not a rookie on the team now," Doughty said. "I definitely have to use my experience, be a leader on that team. It's a different time for me now."