He needed a drink of water – or maybe something stronger. As he stood at the lectern Tuesday in Toronto, Steve Yzerman smacked his lips and stumbled over his words, as nervous as you’ll ever see him.
The man is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He has won the Stanley Cup as a player and an executive, and he has won Olympic gold as a player and an executive. But he has also been cut from Team Canada as a player, so he knows how it feels, and he has also fallen short plenty of times, so he knows how it happens, no matter how good you’re supposed to be.
And now, before a national TV audience, before millions of amateur GMs, he was about to announce the Canadian men’s hockey team for the Sochi Olympics. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper had just tweeted that he was looking forward to it. Nike, an American apparel company, was running TV ads playing on Canadian pride: “We invented this game. We perfected it.”
“Never bef …”
He sighed again.
“Never before …
He sighed again.
“Excuse me. I’ve lost my train of thought here.”
He took a deep breath.
“Um, international hockey is getting more difficult for Canadians every day,” said Yzerman, pointing out how Canada had just failed to medal at the 2014 world juniors, listing other top levels in the men’s and women’s game. “We won a gut-wrenching gold medal in Vancouver on home ice four years ago. The competition is harder today. Our goal is to go to Sochi and come home with a gold medal. By no means do we consider this to be an easy task.”
Yzerman has an awesome, impossible job as Team Canada executive director. His country has incredible depth. It is an advantage, because he can take the cream of the crop to start, and he can draw from the rest if he needs to fill holes at the last minute because of injuries. But it is a curse as well, because he can take only 25 players to face countries that also have 25 top players, and they will play in a single-elimination tournament on bigger ice overseas. The 26th, 27th and 28th players can’t help him, and he can only hurt them.
Canada is stacked and has the highest expectations. But it is always stacked and always has the highest expectations, and it has won gold two times in the four Olympics in which NHL players have participated – better than any other country, but still not enough for some. It has not won a medal outside North America. If Canada doesn’t win gold – or, gasp, doesn’t win a medal at all again – Canadians won’t say Canada isn’t the best. They will say Canada didn’t bring its best team.
Three of the top 17 scorers in the NHL did not make this roster: Joe Thornton, who ranks fifth in points and first in assists, plus Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall. Martin St-Louis didn’t make it, either, even though he won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s scoring champion last season – and has played well for Yzerman’s own Tampa Bay Lightning. Neither did Claude Giroux and Logan Couture and James Neal and so many others.
People like to say Canada’s B team could compete for a medal, and they might be right. But let’s not act like other countries didn’t face difficult decisions and snub high-profile players, too. The United States – one overtime goal away from beating Canada for gold four years ago – didn’t take Kyle Okposo, Bobby Ryan and Keith Yandle. Sweden didn’t take Jonas Brodin, Victor Hedman and Patric Hornqvist. The Czech Republic didn’t take Jiri Hudler and Radim Vrbata. Russia didn’t take Alex Semin.
“What other team do we worry about?” Yzerman said. “Every one. Honestly.”
Yzerman wasn’t just being politically correct. He wasn’t just managing expectations. He was being realistic. Even Canada’s gold-medal teams have had struggles. In 2002 in Salt Lake, Canada lost 5-2 to Sweden, beat Germany 3-2 and tied the Czech Republic 3-3, all in the preliminary round. Four years ago in Vancouver, Canada lost to the United States 5-3 and needed a shootout to beat Switzerland 3-2 in the prelims. In both tournaments, Canada had to win one-goal games in the medal round.
“Is there good players that aren’t on? Absolutely. Are they hard decisions? For sure,” said Team Canada coach Mike Babcock. “But you have to make the decisions, and we have a real good group of players. And now we have to become a real good team.”
The executives and coaches weren’t picking the best 25 Canadian players – the best three goaltenders, the best eight defensemen and the best 14 forwards. This wasn’t an awards vote. They were picking the 25 Canadian players who they felt would make the best team at this particular time for this particular tournament. They emphasized speed because of the big ice. You had to be fast. If you weren’t fast, you had to think fast and be surrounded by teammates who could skate.
They love hockey. Still, they spent so much time watching hockey while scouting, Babcock said it was “almost to nausea.” They went over roles in detail for months in meetings and conference calls. Finally, they met at a Toronto hotel from 4 p.m. Monday through 1 a.m. Tuesday. They went over situation after situation: Who is on the ice down by one in the last minute? Who is on the ice up by one in the last minute? Who kills penalties? What are the power-play units? Who’s on the point?
The goaltenders were pretty much set: Roberto Luongo, Carey Price and Mike Smith. The defensemen also were pretty much set: Jay Bouwmeester, Drew Doughty, Dan Hamhuis, Duncan Keith, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Shea Weber.
The biggest debate on the blue line was over the seventh and eighth spots. Subban, the reigning winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman, made it over Brent Seabrook, who won gold in Vancouver and has won two Stanley Cups since with the Chicago Blackhawks. “These are the types of decisions we’re making,” Yzerman said. “We’re talking about two really good players here.” Both are right-handed, and Babcock wanted an even balance of lefties and righties, so Hamhuis landed the last spot on the left side.
The toughest decisions were up front. The brass arrived Monday with 11 locks. First, they went over the locks to make sure they were indeed locks. Then they settled on the last three spots, using a pool of seven to nine players. The forwards: Jamie Benn, Patrice Bergeron, Jeff Carter, Sidney Crosby, Matt Duchene, Ryan Getzlaf, Chris Kunitz, Patrick Marleau, Rick Nash, Corey Perry, Patrick Sharp, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Jonathan Toews.
Stamkos made it despite a broken tibia, because he is healing well and can be replaced if he isn’t ready. Benn and Marleau made it even though they weren’t invited to the orientation camp in August. They played their way onto the team with excellent seasons. Both bring size and skill, and Marleau especially brings speed. Both play left wing, and both can play center, too. Carter and Nash haven’t been healthy or at their best this season. But both are natural goal-scorers on the right wing. Yes, so is Neal. But it’s not like Carter and Nash were bad picks, and Nash has excelled for Team Canada in the past. Babcock has long loved him.
Kunitz was perhaps the most controversial choice. He made it because of his chemistry with Crosby, his linemate on the Pittsburgh Penguins. But he also has played with Getzlaf and Perry on the Anaheim Ducks, and he deserves more credit for the player he is in his own right – a competitor, a net-front presence on the power play, sixth overall in league scoring. “Ultimately we asked ourselves the question: On his own, does he belong on this team?” Yzerman said. “And our answer was: ‘Yes, he belongs on this team.’ ” Is Kunitz a Hall of Famer? No. But is he another Rob Zamuner, who made it over Mark Messier in 1998 when Canada failed to medal in Nagano? No. He’s not that, either. Far from it.
“I don’t know how many times Steve Yzerman said last night, ‘Guys, are we missing something? Do we feel good about the team?’ ” said Ken Holland, a member of the management group. “So we debated and debated and debated and discussed, and ultimately, we left off some tremendous hockey players. But if we put those three or four on, we have to leave these ones off.”
This team is positioned well for a tournament that allows little practice time and takes less than two weeks to play. It is outstanding down the middle, with four centermen in the top 10 in NHL scoring – Crosby, Tavares, Getzlaf and Toews – plus Bergeron, a winner of the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. There are pairs of teammates: Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo on the back end, plus Kunitz and Crosby, Getzlaf and Perry, and Sharp and Toews up front. Those pairs can stay intact, or they can be split. There is flexibility for every situation. There is a mix of experience and youth. There is plenty of talent all over the place.
We can debate the bottom part of the roster, but the core of the team was always going to be the core of the team. Team Canada was going to be a favorite, if not the favorite, no matter who made the last defense pairing and the final few forward spots. Team Canada was going to face stiff competition in a single-elimination tournament no matter how the roster filled out. There were lots of ways to build the team that would be correct if everything went well and could be second-guessed if one thing went wrong.
A nation is watching. A million amateur GMs are debating. A prime minister is tweeting. A Nike ad is running: “We invented this game. We perfected it.” But it doesn’t matter who invented the game in 2014, and this isn’t a perfect world, and this is what makes a man like Yzerman’s mouth dry at the big moment. This is what makes the Olympics so much fun.
“I think that we all understand the passion going into the Sochi Olympics,” Holland said. “And you know what? We love it. We love the passion. We’re Canadians. We all grew up in Canada, and we love the challenge.”