CALGARY, Alberta – Steve Yzerman laughed. Well, he half-laughed, exasperated.
It was Sunday, almost six months before the Sochi Olympics. It was an orientation camp for Team Canada, not an evaluation camp. The 46 players wouldn’t even be going on the ice because of the high cost of insuring their NHL contracts. They would be going over systems and logistics, bonding a bit. The most athletic endeavor would be golf.
And yet here he was sitting on a podium, flanked by his advisors, facing rows of reporters. And he was being asked why “we really haven’t done much” in international men’s hockey competition “aside from, you know, Vancouver and Salt Lake City,” when, you know, Canada won Olympic gold.
“The reality is,” said Yzerman, the executive director of Team Canada, “these are hard tournaments to win.”
It is easy to lose perspective, especially in Canada. Nowhere else is hockey such a passion and a part of the nation’s identity. Win gold, and all is right with the world. Don’t, and something is wrong. Deeply, deeply wrong. The self-esteem of a society suffers.
The reality is, Canada has done more than any other nation in recent history.
In the past nine world junior championships, Canada has won five golds, two silvers and a bronze – but because Canada did so in that order and did not medal this year, it represents a decline.
The world championships are a poor measure, because the lineups depend on which teams are out of the NHL playoffs and who shows up. They are played in Europe on Olympic-sized ice. But hey, Canada has won three of the past 11. Only Russia has won as many in that time period. Canada has won three silvers, too, though it has not won gold since 2007 or any medal since 2009.
The NHL has gone to four Olympics. Canada has won half of them and two of the last three. When Sidney Crosby scored the winner on home ice in 2010, millions cheered and exhaled at the same time.
“That’s the most pressure I think I’ve ever felt as a hockey player,” Crosby said.
Now comes more pressure.
The reality also is, Canada faces a huge dilemma in Sochi – a huge opportunity to win back-to-back golds and three golds in four Olympiads, yes, but a huge challenge to win any medal at all, too.
Canadians love to point out that their country could ice multiple medal-worthy teams. It is a source of pride, an argument of superiority. But that depth matters only so much because each team can take only so many players – 25. Yzerman is like Xerxes marching his massive armies into a narrow corridor in “300.” His numbers count for nothing.
How many countries have 25 players who can compete with Canada’s top 25? Several. A growing number. And especially on big ice, which is native to Europeans.
Twice, Canada has played overseas on Olympic-sized ice and failed to win a medal while the Europeans swept the podium – in Nagano in 1998 and Torino in 2006. Twice, Canada has stayed in North America and beaten another North American team, the United States, for gold – in Salt Lake in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010. (Salt Lake had bigger ice, but as veteran coach Ken Hitchcock will tell you, those Olympics did not feature a big-ice game. Vancouver had NHL-sized ice.)
The pattern is obvious. Yzerman, coach Mike Babcock and the rest of the braintrust have learned from it and are preparing for the big ice in Russia. Ralph Krueger, a veteran international coach who led the Edmonton Oilers last season, has been added to the staff for his big-ice expertise.
The coaches will go over big-ice tactics Monday and Tuesday, though they will do it in meeting rooms and not on the Olympic-sized ice in the same state-of-the-art training center. They will try to adjust to the extra 15 feet of width and more conservative game without losing their aggressive, Canadian style. They will weigh speed heavily when putting together the final roster.
“We’re not just going to take the 13 fastest forwards and the eight fastest defensemen,” Yzerman said. “There’s going to be some players on this team that are simply too good to leave off, and you wouldn’t consider them as racehorses.”
You’d consider them foxes, though.
“If you’re not quick and agile,” Hitchcock said, “you’re going to have to be a brilliant player.”
Yzerman has to pick the 25 right players for this particular tournament. Babcock has to use them the right way in this particular tournament. But even if they do, Canada still might not medal. Though Canada is so deep at center that it will move superstar centermen to the wing, though it has a defense corps that can move the puck perfectly well for the big ice, it has a goaltending situation that is wide open at best, uncertain at least and shaky at worst.
The Olympics are not the Stanley Cup playoffs. There are no best-of-7 series, no wars of attrition, no chances to make up for mistakes or bad breaks. There are one-game eliminations. One goal, one bounce, one call can end it all. The quality of the hockey is even better and the margin is even thinner than the best the NHL has to offer.
Remember: Last time, Crosby gave Canada the ending it expected, wanted, needed – putting an exclamation point on the Vancouver Games and keeping the country on top of the sport. But the best player in the world had an otherwise unremarkable tournament, and the golden goal came in overtime.
“It’s hard to win the world junior tournament,” Yzerman said. “It’s hard to win the world championship. They’re all difficult. So we have to enjoy every time we win and appreciate whether it’s a gold, a silver or whatnot. Especially when we win gold, really appreciate it, because you can’t say you’re going to do it every time we go to the Olympics.”
No matter how badly you want it.