(This article was originally published at The Sporting News)
It became clear early on in the day just how Hockey Canada planned to substitute the lack of an on ice component at this years three day Olympic Orientation Camp in Calgary.
"I thought it was pretty cool" said Bruins forward Milan Lucic. "I know we weren’t on the ice but I think a lot was accomplished here today and I know all the guys had fun here and it’s very clear now with how the coaches want us to play in Sochi"
Due to the prohibitive costs to insure all 46 players who have a combined NHL cap hit rests at about $1.5 billion, Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock needed to find alternative methods to instruct the players about the systems and terminology that would be employed by the team in Sochi. Much like a minor hockey camp, the players were split up into groups and put through the paces by Babcock and the rest of the coaching staff.
When asked about where the ball hockey walk-through idea came from, Babcock revealed he had consulted with a couple of cross-sport colleagues – Michigan State basketball coach Mike Izzo and Detroit Lions quarterback coach Todd Downey – on the matter and drew inspiration from them.
"Tom Izzo is a Hall of Fame basketball coach," explained Babcock. "When I phoned him, he was thrilled to talk to me and had a bunch of ideas for me. We talked back and forth, he was able to help me understand the process so we could present something to the players so they could learn but also so I was confident enough that we could do this."
The conversation with Todd Downey was similar.
"Todd Downey, the quarterback coach of the Lions, he was the same," Babcock continued. "He was fantastic. Actually, he was brilliant. He had so many good ideas for me. It’s easy for me to come out and run stuff when you’re on the ice. That’s what I do for a living. This isn’t what I do for a living, so I didn’t know how it was going to be."
Clearly the point of the drills this week are to lay the fundamentals and introduce the players to the systems and terminology so that when they hit the ice together as a team in Sochi, they’ll only need a refresher coarse.
"Yeah you definitely can retain a lot [of the systems]," answered Bruins forward Milan Lucic. "We’re all smart hockey players, we’re all really good players with good hockey sense, that’s part of the reason why we’re here so it shouldn’t take too long to figure out the systems once we get Sochi."
The ball hockey drills were only one of a couple methods utilized by the coaching staff to drive home concepts and issues. A lot of other information was presented to the players today but they understand the process and what needs to be done.
"We went through the systems, we watched lots of video and lots of technical stuff," said Maple Leaf captain Dion Phaneuf. "There’s lots of information in a short period of time but the main reason why we’re here is for the name of the camp, the orientation of everything, so there’s a lot of information being presented [and] it’s our job to take that and absorb it."
At the end of the day, Mike Babcock was pleased with how smoothly everything went and the opportunity the ball hockey session presented to efficiently convey the information the coaching group felt was key.
"We thought this was an excellent day for our team and our coaching staff," Babcock said. "I think the guys had a lot of fun. I talked to a few of the key guys, and they told me it was good. We’ll talk about it [on Monday night] and we’ll revisit it again [on Tuesday] and have another good day and take a step. I think it sets us up good. I was extremely pleased."
Although a different experience from a typical practice session, just getting out on the surface with the rest of the group was an important experience for the players to not only familiarize themselves with the systems, but also with the bigger – specifically wider – surface that they’ll deal with in Sochi.
"Yeah, it was different for sure but it’s still good to physically be out here and just get a feel for exactly the type of system the team will be playing in Sochi," said Blackhawk captain Jonathan Toews. "I don’t think too many things will change as we go along and I think it’s one thing to be on the Olympic sheet and to realize how much space there is out here and how tough it is to get from A to B."
Although the ball hockey session appeared loose and laid back on the surface, Mike Babcock found himself loudly hollering out instructions and was actively involved in adjusting how the drills were done. The intensity and high level detail of the dry land training was also noted by Toews.
"That’s, I think, one of the good things about him [Babcock] as a coach. He’s very detailed, he’s very specific, he requires the attention from all his players and I saw it right away that guys were paying attention to those little details because it does matter," said Toews.
Although they’re in direct competition with each other to make the final cut, the atmosphere was light and friendly between the players, laughing and tossing friendly passes across the surface at each other. In the media scrums afterwards, the players remained upbeat, cracking jokes at each other.
The day was no doubt an exhaustive one for the group with all the meetings, ball hockey sessions and media availabilities, but the players looked forward to an evening of golf, dining and team bonding before going through it all again one more time tomorrow prior to departing and prepping for upcoming NHL training camps.
Scrimmage Lines and Notes
Eric Staal – Jonathan Toews – Rick Nash
Logan Couture – John Tavares – Steven Stamkos
Martin St. Louis – Mike Richards – Jeff Carter
Andrew Ladd – Ryan Getzlaf – Corey Perry
Marc Staal – Drew Doughty
Dion Phaneuf – Brent Seabrook
Jay Bouwmeester – P.K. Subban
Alex Pietrangelo – Travis Hamonic – Dan Hamhuis
Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Patrick Sharp
Milan Lucic – Matt Duchene – James Neal
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – Jordan Eberle
Taylor Hall – Jordan Staal – Dylan Walchuk (University of Calgary)
Duncan Keith – Shea Weber
Karl Alzner – Mike Green
Marc-Edouard Vlasic – Dan Boyle
Marc Methot – Kris Letang
Mike Babcock though made it abundantly clear that the lines seen today were not in any way shape or form, a foreshadow of what we could see in February.
"We made sure that you couldn’t read too much into the lines on purpose," Babcock said. "I want every one of these guys knowing they have an opportunity to be an Olympian. Don’t read into anything that happened here [today]."