(Christian is attending Olympic orientation camp this week and will be providing us occassional insights and updates. A version of this article was originally published at The Sporting News.)
Hockey Canada kicked off their three day Orientation Camp in Calgary on Sunday in anticipation of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia with an introductory press conference and Q&A session with the media.
The management team (consisting of Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, Blues GM Doug Armstrong, Oilers President Kevin Lowe, Hockey Canada President/CEO Bob Nicholson and Hockey Canada Vice-President of Hockey Opertations Brad Pascall), the coaching staff (made up of Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock, Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock, Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien and Stars Head Coach Lindy Ruff) as well as five players (Sidney Crosby, Roberto Luongo, Shea Weber, Patrice Bergeron and Rick Nash) stopped in and answered questions regarding the Olympic games and this camp in particular.
Red Wings GM Ken Holland is also part of the brain trust but was not on hand and was expected to arrive later in the evening. Ex-Oilers Head Coach Ralph Krueger was recently added as an international ice hockey adviser and will assist the coaching staff with the transition to big ice surface. The management team remains the same from 2010, the only change coming with Peter Chiarelli being added as a full-fledged member of the team. The coaching staff too sees minor changes with Jacques Lemaire departing and Claude Julien taking his place.
Specifics such as objectives of the camp and methodology used to approach the 2014 edition of the Winter Games were common themes throughout the press conference. Unlike past years, the players and coaching staff will not be able hit the ice together due to high insurance costs – speculated to be in excess of a million dollars; instead video and dry land methods will be utilized to relay expectations and systems to the 46 players attending.
The inability to skate together, however, will not hinder the effectiveness of the camp said Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien, who noted the exclusively off-ice scenario will give the coaching staff a "great opportunity to do something different".
Whether or not the players practiced this week would’ve been inconsequential when it came to selection of the final roster, Steve Yzerman revealed, referring back to the 2009 evaluation camp when the players did skate.
"Despite what everybody might think, we didn’t use going on the ice as an evaluation tool"
Instead, the on ice sessions were aimed at introducing the players to the systems and instilling a level of comfort in them so that when the team practices together just prior to the Games, they’ll only need to quickly refresh what was taught at the orientation camp. That’s exactly what the plan is this time around – albeit with no ice and Yzerman, as well as the entire coaching staff, reiterated that nothing changes in terms of the objective of the camp due to the lack of an on-ice component.
The theme of "team bonding" was stressed thoroughly by the management group, in particular by Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe, who noted that "camaraderie and relationships" going into the Olympics is important and the level of familiarity among players is not something to be underestimated.
On the topic of what the staff hopes to achieve with this camp, Head Coach Mike Babcock echoed similar thoughts.
"This isn’t an evaluation camp at all, it’s an opportunity to know one another, to get some details on how we’re going to play and understand what it’s going to take to be on the team."
When asked about how they were approaching the selection process for the team and what lessons they’ve learned from the last time Canada participated in the men’s ice hockey event on large ice in Turin (where they came in an abysmal seventh place), Kevin Lowe responded by saying the brain trust was "much more open minded to have a different team than the gold medal team", perhaps hinting that just because a player was a member of the 2010 gold medal winning squad doesn’t mean he would be entitled to a free pass onto the current iteration.
Look no further than former Flames captain and 2010 "golden goal" participant Jarome Iginla who didn’t even receive an invitation to the camp as evidence to the commitment of icing the best possible team in Sochi – regardless of a past merit or achievements.
Lowe would go on to say that one of the main qualities they’ll be looking at when evaluating players is foot speed and puck moving ability. The Olympic ice surface will be "internationally sized", measuring approximately 200ft x 100ft, which is 15ft wider than NHL rinks. This naturally changes the dynamic of game, putting emphasis on skating and puck movement.
It was suggested that the aforementioned 2006 Canadian squad was a veteran laden team that nevertheless had trouble adjusting to the wider ice surface. Hockey Canada is not making that mistake again this time around.
"Speed, Agility, if you don’t have those then smarts is at a premium and I think all of us recognize that moving forward in our evaluation, [that] those things are going to be critical when looking at a player." Hitchcock said, alluding to attributes he will be looked for in the evaluation process. "If you’re not fast and good puck handler, you’re going to have to be a brilliant player [to make the team]."
The understanding that there needs to be some roster turnover and that speed and puck moving ability is key for the team explains for the number of younger men invited to the camp. Yzerman said he expects the team to be relatively young, but with the recent influx of young, elite Canadian skill in NHL this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
While the orientation camp is organized to lay the groundwork and foundation for the team in February, as Mike Babcock mentioned, much of the work and game planning will take place on location in Sochi, in the days and hours leading up to the games.
"The Olympic Games, the World Championships. any of these events are about being a work in progress, about building as you go on and getting better."
– All three groups spoke about Russia’s Anti-Gay laws, with Shea Weber and Sidney Crosby specifically speaking out against the host country’s stance on homosexuality.
– The coaching staff will conduct walk-throughs with the players on a boarded up ice surface in the morning tomorrow.
– Besides the meetings and walk-throughs, the players will participate in team bonding sessions that include golf and dinner.
– USA Hockey opens their Olympic Orientation Camp in Arlington, VA. They won’t skate either.