Canada thinking big for Sochi
CALGARY, Alberta -- No country has repeated as Olympic champion since the world's best players began participating in the tournament with the NHL's blessing in 1998.
And, more precisely, neither Canada nor the United States has been able to pick up a medal of any color once the puck was dropped outside of North America, striking out both in Nagano (1998) and Torino (2006).
So as Team Canada opened its Olympic orientation camp (sans ice) on Sunday, there was a clear but subtle difference in the reaction from players and coaches/management to an identical question: How much of a factor is the bigger international ice surface, which will be on display in Sochi, Russia, in February?
The NHL ice surface is 200 feet by 85 feet, but international rinks are 15 feet wider.
The players more or less minimized the impact of the ice size difference, saying it's a matter of small adjustments but, in the end, hockey is hockey.
On the flip side, from head coach Mike Babcock to general manager Steve Yzerman, it's clear that the adjustment to the international style of play and the bigger ice is in fact going to be paramount in the team meetings that began in earnest Sunday and were to continue through Tuesday.
"The difference on the big ice -- how the Europeans play on the big ice, how they defend -- it's a more conservative game," Yzerman said during a news conference carried live on TV in Canada.
This is hardly new information, but perhaps what's new is how hockey's birth country and perennial gold-medal favorite is more willing to be open-minded about its approach across the pond. Because it certainly wasn't on display in 2006 in Italy, when a stationary team that looked confused at times on the bigger ice finished in seventh place.
Enter Kevin Lowe and Ken Hitchcock, holdovers on Team Canada through 2002, 2006, 2010 and are now back for the 2014 Olympics; Lowe will once again be on the management team, and Hitchcock will be a coach on Babcock's staff. Those two voices have been key this summer in understanding the lessons learned in Torino.
Both Hitchock and Lowe agree the problem was two-fold in Torino:
1. Canada was too loyal to some players who helped snap Canada's 50-year Olympic gold-medal drought in 2002, as well as players who won the World Cup of Hockey for Canada in 2004.
2. The big-ice impact was real.
"The big-ice game is the big equalizer. It's the game that you can get swallowed up by as a North American player," Hitchcock told ESPN.com in a separate interview Sunday. "If we were guilty of anything before Torino, it's that we didn't do enough detail preparation knowing the changes in the game that were going to get played. The first mistake was an honest mistake -- that all of us felt there was a sense of obligation to that group from 2004 because they played so well."
At the management staff news conference Sunday, Lowe could not have spelled it out any more plainly.
"We are much more open-minded to have a different team than the gold-medal team in Vancouver," Lowe said. "Not that we were close-minded for '06 after Salt Lake but certainly respectful of the group that had won in '02. You know, there were the incumbents, the ones who had won … We felt they were still capable of delivering as a group. Well, this is a lot different than the National Hockey League. It is four years removed from [the Vancouver Olympics].
"The biggest lesson is foot speed -- for all players," Lowe added. "You have to be able to skate, and you have to be able to move the puck. We've seen that time and time again -- in '06 and [at the] World Championship the last couple of years. It's quite evident.
"The team will be made up of players who can skate, think and move the puck. There could be a number of changes from the gold-medal team in Vancouver."
To be fair to that 2006 team, the blue line was hammered by injuries, notably Chris Pronger trying to play on one leg and Scott Niedermayer not available because of a knee injury/surgery. You can't replace those guys.
The architect of both the 2002 gold-medal team, which ended Canada's 50-year Olympic drought, and the team that struggled in Torino agrees there were lessons to be learned from Italy. But he also cautioned it's not an easy balance to strike.
"You're trying to maybe adjust the strategy a little bit because of the larger ice surface, but it becomes a fine line between that and having loyalty to the guys that not only won for you but also bring that experience and had to face that pressure and know what it's about," Wayne Gretzky told ESPN.com Sunday. "So it's indeed a fine line. Those are the tough decisions that have to be made."
The interesting dilemma for Team Canada will be to balance the trust that it has in the players that were clutch in Vancouver with the desire to be a more mobile team in Sochi.
"I think what happened in 2010 … We're real obviously excited about the opportunity we had there. We enjoyed it," said Babcock, who returns as coach after leading Canada to gold on home soil. "But that's over with. This is a new opportunity, and so some guys who played on that team are still on the top of their game. They're going to be on the next team. And some guys that were on that team didn't get invited to the camp and their career is not at that point. So, once again, it's the best guys that are going to play on the team.
"We've got to pick the best group to play, and I don't think it has anything to do with 2010."
Translation: Canada is thinking big ice all the way in picking this team.
If you needed any further proof of that, just look at the official appointment Sunday of former Swiss national Olympic coach Ralph Krueger to Babcock's Team Canada staff.
Just call him "Coach Big Ice."
Krueger actually began to consult with Team Canada's staff back in June during a meeting around the NHL draft and immediately wowed Babcock with his international insight.
"We brought Ralph on board because he knows way more about the big ice than we do, and, you know, the bottom line is, we don't want to be making decisions over there because we got backed off because something went wrong," Babcock said. "For example, Claude [Julien] is responsible for our penalty kill. He was asking Ralph this morning, 'Can we pressure that hard?' No one knows better than him."
The key for the coaching staff will be to communicative these adjustments to the players -- starting now -- so that it sinks in and isn't something that hits them like a two-by-four come February.
Because, again, they won't be on the ice practicing until a day or two before their first game with Norway at the Olympics. The players need to get this now, and to do that, the coaches have a sales job ahead of them.
"I don't think a lot changes," superstar center Sidney Crosby said Sunday when asked about the difference in playing on the big ice. "If anything, I guess the obvious answer is there is some space out there. But, other than that, I don't think you change up a whole lot. If anything, you have a little bit more time to make decisions. Things are typically a little bit slower. I think, for the most part, you try not to change too much."
Then again, when you're the best player in the world, your ability to adapt is greater than anyone else's. And Crosby has always looked just as dangerous no matter the size of the ice.
His teammates will also need to feel the same ease.
Power forward Rick Nash played in both the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, experiencing the lowest of lows in Italy and the highest of highs in Vancouver. But he downplayed the big-ice effect, pointing to his play in Davos, Switzerland, during both NHL lockouts. He says he's at home on the bigger ice sheet.
"For me, I like the big ice," Nash said. "I find it's not so much of a difference. I think playing for Canada, we've had success on both, but, like Sid said, they're just small things. It's different angles. It's a bit more skating. You can drift to the outside more if you're not careful. But, me personally, I've played a lot on the big ice, and I enjoy it."
As far as Hitchcock is concerned, Team Canada will be more ready this time around for big-ice hockey.
"I think we have a really good read of what it's like now," he said. "I don't think that's going to be an issue."
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