Eyes of entire nation on Team Canada
You have to go back to 1972 to find a hockey event as eagerly anticipated in Canada as the 2010 Olympic tournament. But the comparison doesn't do justice to the pressure and expectations that will greet the Canadian men when they touch down in Vancouver this weekend.
Before the Summit Series against the Russians in 1972, the assumption was Canada would prevail because they were Canadians and it was their game. End of story. It didn't turn out that way even though the Canadians won on Paul Henderson's dramatic goal in the eighth game of the series. It was, in a sense, the end of hockey innocence for an entire nation.
In 2010, no such illusions exist about Canadian supremacy after the country's seventh-place finish in Torino four years ago.
That said, the belief it is Canada's birthright to win gold on its home soil and reaffirm its place as an international hockey titan is as strong as ever. Simply put, nothing else but a win in the gold-medal game will do.
And if that doesn't provide a backdrop as imposing as the British Columbia mountains, we don't know what will. Here are 10 things you should know about the 2010 Canadian team:
1. The gold standard in net?Let's start between the pipes, where these kinds of tournaments often get decided (think Canada's shootout loss to Dominik Hasek and the Czechs in the semifinals in 1998 or Antero Niittymaki's stellar effort for the Finns, who earned a surprise silver in 2006). Canada boasts as much goaltending depth as there is in the tournament.
Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury give coach Mike Babcock a lot to choose from. The problem is goaltending is probably the position that requires the least depth in Vancouver. Unlike Torino, where teams played eight games to get to a medal, the four teams that will compete in the two medal games in Vancouver will likely play six games and a maximum of seven. The top four teams through the preliminary round get a bye into the quarterfinals (each team plays three preliminary-round games).
Babcock talked about his goalie "rotation," which suggests he'll use two netminders. The assumption is Brodeur will be the goalie of record with Luongo getting at least one start through the first three preliminary games. Hard to argue with that, but it is worth reminding folks that Fleury has provided more clutch moments for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the past two seasons than Luongo and Brodeur combined. It isn't even close if you recall how both Brodeur and Luongo melted down in the playoffs for the Devils and Canucks, respectively, last spring. It likely won't get Fleury into any games, but it is a fact. And if the Brodeur/Luongo tandem cannot deliver gold, the decision may well be a talking point when the dust clears in Vancouver.
2. Deep as a wellWhile we're on the topic of depth ... players like Steven Stamkos (33 goals, fifth in the NHL as of Wednesday) and Martin St. Louis (tied for seventh in the NHL with 66 points) are not part of the team. Their absence has created next to zero debate or outcry among Canada's hockey faithful or even the press. Team Canada associate coach Ken Hitchcock believes depth is one of Canada's greatest assets.
Every country brings its A-plus game against Canada every time, Hitchcock told ESPN.com this week. Lesser teams, like Norway and Switzerland, may use adrenaline to stay with the Canadians, at least through the start of games. "For us to be effective, our depth has to take over," Hitchcock said.
That means having some patience. "We can't get discouraged if we don't have initial success," he said.
In Italy, the Swiss shocked Canada 2-0, a loss that cost the Canadians a more favorable matchup in their first elimination game, a 2-0 loss to Russia. It proves depth on paper means little unless that depth asserts itself on the ice.
3. ChemistryPeople talk about chemistry as though it's something you see on a shelf and put in your shopping cart. Sadly, it's one of those things you don't know you don't have until it's too late. Take 2006, when the Canadians could not push through adversity and were dispatched in the quarterfinals by Russia after staggering through the preliminary round without once looking formidable.
And the Canadiens have to find their chemistry in short order. They skate early Monday evening before opening the tournament against Norway on Tuesday afternoon.
"Is there a way to get it all done in 45 minutes?" Babcock asked rhetorically of preparing his team for that first game.
No. But that's why the Calgary orientation camp is so important. "We're going to go back to the foundations we laid there," he said. "This will be a work in progress."
The key, said Hitchcock, is to make it as simple as possible to create an environment that requires little thinking and allows players to react. On Friday and Saturday, Hitchcock will do a walk-through of all the venues and facilities the Canadians will use and call coaches with suggestions on how to make things more NHL-like and familiar to the Canadian players.
"Anything we can do to eliminate hesitation in any part of our game you want to do," Hitchcock said. "It's going to look simple and organized and will be something they can get their teeth into right away."
Executive director Steve Yzerman also named players to the team who have a history with each other: Ryan Getzlaf (assuming his ankle holds up) and Corey Perry play together in Anaheim; Dany Heatley Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau make up an effective offensive trio for San Jose; and defense partners Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are from Chicago.
4. Where's the beef, er, goals?In 2006, no Canadian player scored more than two goals in the tournament and Canada scored just 15 goals in six games. It just reinforced the notion players like Eric Staal and Sidney Crosby should have been on the team. The 2010 roster includes three of the top five goal producers in the NHL this season (Crosby, Marleau and Heatley). The Canadians should be better at the transition game this time around, too, with Scott Niedermayer (missed 2006 with a knee injury) and Dan Boyle (on the taxi squad four years ago) in the lineup.
Also, there was plenty of post-Torino criticism about the lack of youthful vigor on the 2006 squad. This year, Yzerman avoided the safe play in adding L.A. Kings star defenseman Drew Doughty even though he's just 20 years old. Other players who are 25 or younger include Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, Shea Weber, Mike Richards, Rick Nash, Crosby, Staal, Perry, Fleury and Getzlaf.
5. Pressure or motivation?When the Games were held in North America in 2002 at Salt Lake City, Canada became one seething, writhing mass of angst after losing its opening game to Sweden and looking shaky against Germany. Executive director Wayne Gretzky later delivered his famous "us against the world" speech, which was seen as a turning point for the Canadians, who went on to run the table and defeat the Americans in the gold-medal game.
In Vancouver, the pressure will be different. Every time the Canadians step on the ice at Canada Hockey Place, there will 18,630 people inside demanding perfection. "We're going to feel it every day," Hitchcock said.
Hockey Canada has employed what it is calling a "distraction management plan," which will work at keeping the players and their families cocooned as much as possible from the external pressures of the tournament. The Canadian players will exist, for the most part, within a triangle that includes the athletes' village, venues and practice areas, and a secure facility where they will be able to relax with family and friends.
"Our guys all know what the expectations are and what the goal is," Yzerman told ESPN.com. "There's no reason to hide from that or to avoid that."
6. Sid's Olympic debutIt seems a bit ridiculous to focus on one player from a team as good and deep as this Canadian squad. Yet, there is quite simply something special about Crosby and his ability to deliver the goods on the grandest of stages. We saw it the past two springs when he first led the youthful Penguins to the 2008 Stanley Cup finals and then reinvented himself into a goal scorer last season when Pittsburgh won it all. This season, Crosby is again shouldering the burden in Pittsburgh and was second in the NHL in goals and third in points (as of Wednesday). So, what will Crosby do in this, his first Olympic Games? The hockey world waits, but we're guessing it will be pretty fun to watch.
7. Coaching marksGiven that players have about 15 minutes to prepare for the start of the tournament (thanks to the NHL for scheduling that includes six games on the final Sunday before the Olympic break), you have to believe coaching counts for a lot here. The ability to get a team on the same page quickly and continue to improve is key. Canada should be pleased to have Babcock behind the bench and a staff that includes Lindy Ruff, the longest-tenured coach in the NHL; Jacques Lemaire, who knows a thing or two about Stanley Cups; and Hitchcock, who has been to the Olympic dance before.
Here's what we love about Babcock. About three seconds after the players took the ice in Calgary for Canada's orientation camp in August, he was barking at players. And he didn't let up until they were packing their bags to head home. Babcock said the plan for the Canadian team is similar to what led his Red Wings to win a Cup in 2008 and advance to Game 7 of last season's Cup finals. And he won't be afraid to bench players who don't produce.
"We play as simple a game as any team," Babcock said. "But you have to execute. We're going to do the same thing in Vancouver."
8. The shootoutThere has not been a shootout in Olympic competition on the men's side since Hasek's famous stoning of the Canadians in the 1998 Nagano semifinals. But with the fierce competition among the top teams, it is a distinct possibility this year. So how does Canada stack up?
No NHLer has more than six shootout goals this season, and among that group are Canadian forwards Crosby and Toews. Rick Nash has four and Getzlaf and Patrice Bergeron have three.
There's good news on the goaltending front, too. Brodeur is second only to Jonathan Quick with six shootout wins and has stopped 19 of 26 shootout attempts. Fleury has been lights-out in the shootout, winning all five games in which he's appeared and stopping 14 of 15 shootout attempts. The weak link might be Luongo, who has allowed four goals on 11 attempts and is just 2-2 in shootouts this season.
9. Ready or healthy? There's a differenceOne of the recurring themes leading up to Vancouver has been the need for the Canadians to send as healthy a team as possible to the tournament. Hitchcock has said one of the key problems in 2006 was too many players were at less than 100 percent. Yzerman said the staff will continue to monitor the Canadian lineup until the night before the tournament begins Tuesday (the last possible time when a roster move may be made because of injury).
A number of Canadian Olympians have already battled through injuries since being named to the team, including Brenden Morrow, Boyle, Bergeron, Fleury and most recently Getzlaf. The Anaheim center, penciled in as the No. 2 pivot behind Crosby, has declared himself day-to-day after twisting an ankle earlier this week and expects to be in Vancouver next week.
But rest assured, if there's a belief Getzlaf isn't fully ready, Canada will make a roster move, likely bringing in Philadelphia forward Jeff Carter, who can play both center and winger and is a right-handed shot.
10. Buried treasureIn 2002, Canada's lucky loonie (what the Canadians call their $1 coin) was secreted beneath the ice at the main arena in Salt Lake City and is credited with producing the perfect karma for ending a 50-year gold-medal drought. No word on what was buried in the ice in Italy in 2006, although it might well have been a dead beaver.
So, what's buried at center ice at Canada Hockey Place? We asked the NHL's master ice maker, Dan Craig, and he responded, "blue paint." Everyone's a comedian. Craig insisted no foreign objects are implanted beneath the ice and claimed he has video evidence to support that assertion.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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