Canada’s Golden age of Hockey

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You could tell from the celebration that this one was different. There were no flying gloves, no joyous dogpiles—only a couple of helmets sliding across the ice and a few sticks left lying like downed tools. When the horn sounded and the music struck up inside the cavernous Bolshoy Ice Dome, Team Canada’s players made a happy but orderly crossing to Carey Price’s crease, where they formed a large, red bundle, hugging their laconic netminder who had made two second consecutive shutouts look as easy as roping tame calves in his hometown of Anahim Lake, B.C.

Then they filed back to the bench for hugs and handshakes with the coaches: the preternaturally red-haired Mike Babcock; the avuncular Claude Julien; the acerbic Lindy Ruff and, of course, Ken Hitchcock, still fighting weight gain and clad in pinstripe shirtsleeves that made him look like an accountant.

“Act like you’ve been there before,” the great Vince Lombardi told his football players about overdoing the merriment in the end zone. You’d think the Canadian men’s hockey team had inscribed those words on their locker-room wall. But, of course, they weren’t acting. A lot of them had been there before, four years earlier in Vancouver, when Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal capped Canada’s greatest-ever Olympic Games in a way the country will forever cherish. It’s hard to imagine a celebration greater than the one Canada had that night, and winning twice makes you, well, reflective. As the well-wishing went on down at ice level following Canada’s 3-0, tournament-winning game against Team Sweden, Steve Yzerman, architect of both the 2010 team and the winning squad in Sochi, stayed up in his box seat so he could drink in the spectacle.

There were the goose-stepping Russian honour-guards bringing out the flags, and the sweat-drenched victors queuing up for their medals. And, of course, the players flopping down at centre ice for the obligatory gang photo. “For the last two years, I’ve envisioned standing upstairs to watch as the national anthem was played after we won the gold medal,” Yzerman said. “I went down to the bench and the ice in Vancouver, but I always said, if we did it again, I wanted to stay upstairs and see the flag being raised.”

It is now, in the truest sense, a golden age for Canada’s national hockey teams. Four championships between the men’s and women’s squads in two Olympiads; seven if you go back to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. But the record of domination on paper does scant justice to the growing challenge of winning pressure-packed tournaments under the gaze not just of Canada’s puck-hungry media, but the entire world’s. In Sochi, for once, the Canadians were not the only hockey team melting under the glare of TV lights and camera strobes. Sharing that privilege this time was Russia, a group of hyper-talented all-stars who once again turned out to be less than a team; Team USA, trailing a mob of reporters who dial into hockey once every four years; and, at the end of the tournament, Sweden, whose star centre, Niklas Bäckström, missed the final against Canada after one of his urine tests revealed higher-than acceptable levels of the stimulant pseudoephedrine, common in allergy medicines.

Still, Canada had its hands full. Games against opponents most assumed they’d steamroll—Norway, Finland, Latvia—finished much closer despite the Canadians outshooting all of them by a wide margin. After each of these games, Babcock would settle in the press conference room, slurping from a water bottle while crediting the growth of those nations’ hockey programs, or the efforts of their goaltenders. He would point to the vagaries of playing nine, or 10 or 12 time zones from home, on an ice surface 15 feet wider than the NHL-regulation ones used in Vancouver. Even on gold-medal Sunday, after his players had just received their hardware, Babcock told reporters, straight-faced, that “winning an Olympic tournament is next to impossible.”

It was a clever way of laying a storybook gloss on Canada’s systematic, almost workmanlike victory—the fans who hit those bars in Halifax at 6 a.m., after all, deserved a better story. And to be fair, there must be a reason that no country has managed to repeat as Olympic champion since the dissolution of the Soviet empire, or that Canada hadn’t won gold in men’s hockey outside of the Americas in 62 years. Yet it was unduly modest on Babcock’s part. Because if the big win on the Black Sea reveals anything, it’s the value in planning, taking care of details and, above all, putting faith in good people.

They could easily have rested on their hard-won Olympic laurels. In the months after their glorious win in Vancouver, as the nail-biting closeness of the 3-2 overtime win over Team USA faded from memory, and the euphoria of the moment took on a nostalgic hue, Yzerman and Babcock were canonized in the Canadian media. It was true that the mix of youth and veteran savvy that Yzerman assembled proved perfect for the task, which in 2010 was as much psychological as it was athletic. With the Games being played at home, he knew, his players would be stepping into a cauldron of excitement and adulation that the younger ones might find unsettling.

He also knew that the veneration would morph into angst the instant the team encountered adversity. Which, of course, it did: Canada needed a shootout to defeat Team Switzerland during the round robin, and then lost a game to the United States, throwing fans north of the border into a state of fear and loathing. In the end, though, the team was carried through by the steadying influence of Olympic veterans like Jarome Iginla, Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger—picks that, before the Games, some pundits had questioned. After the tournament, those critics acted as if they’d had Yzerman’s back all along.

As for Babcock, he’d already banked credibility as the coach of the Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings, one of the NHL’s most successful franchises. But after Vancouver, he gained a reputation for near-mystical hockey instincts when it emerged that he had predicted to within 40 seconds the timing of Canada’s overtime winner. After the third period, with the score deadlocked 2-2, Babcock had told his players in the dressing room there was “too much talent on the ice” for the extra period to drag on. “Within the next seven minutes, one of you is going to be a hero for the rest of your life,” he recalled saying, recounting his speech in an interview with Maclean’s nine months later. At the 7:40 mark, Crosby took a pass from Iginla and slid the puck under the pads of U.S. goalie Ryan Miller.

But neither Babcock nor Yzerman was inclined to complacency—perhaps because they understood all too well the high cost of failing this country on hockey’s international stage. In 2006, for example, Team Canada general manager Wayne Gretzky had opted for a lineup of big-bodied NHLers, who proved utterly ill-suited to the wide international ice in Turin, Italy. The result was an ignominious loss to Switzerland during the round robin, followed by a quick exit in the quarter-finals to the Russians, which ended the Great One’s run as boss of the national men’s squad. The reception the players got when they returned to Canada could charitably be described as a chilly.

Yzerman, who was still playing back then, had taken himself out of the running for the 2006 Olympics due to chronic knee issues. But the Turin debacle made an impression on him. When the time came to choose players for Sochi, he made it clear he’d set fire to the blueprint he’d used for the previous Games. “The game has changed, and it’s important that you skate in hockey now, more so than ever,” he told reporters at the unveiling of the Sochi team in early January. “And we’re going to be on the bigger ice.” Only 11 of the 25 players chosen who had been on the roster in Vancouver made the list (though some, like Niedermayer and Pronger, were no longer playing). Among the conspicuously absent 2010 gold medallists were Joe Thornton, the towering centre with the San Jose Sharks, and defenceman Brent Seabrook, who had seen limited ice in Vancouver but had since come into his own, leading his team in ice time many nights during the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2013 Stanley Cup run.

When asked about those omissions, Yzerman retreated behind platitudes, saying any permutation of Canada’s players could be the right one “because they’re all great players.” But Peter Chiarelli, GM of the Boston Bruins and a member of Yzerman’s selection committee, was more blunt. “It’s a different set of dynamics, going into the bigger ice. You have to place a little more weight on some things and a little less on others.”

Anyone who couldn’t pick out the theme wasn’t listening. Fast game, wide ice. Thornton and Seabrook would be mainstays on any NHL hockey team, yet both could be said to lack an iota of the footspeed that ran through the Canadian lineup. Even the less-than-lightning-fast players who made the cut, like forward Patrick Marleau and defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, were known for quick decision-making when they had the puck. On the blue line, returning 2010 players included fleet defencemen Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty, along with rugged, hard-shooting Shea Weber. Joining them were Marc-Édouard Vlasic, an unheralded yet clever defenceman with San Jose, as well as smooth-skating Alex Pietrangelo of St. Louis; Dan Hamhuis of Vancouver; and P.K. Subban, the electrifying Montreal Canadiens blueliner who last year won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman, but whose scenery-chewing presence had made him a lightning rod for critics.

In goal were Subban’s Montreal teammate and pal Carey Price, and Roberto Luongo, who backstopped Canada to its 2010 gold but whose star had faded. The third goalie, who never saw action in Sochi, was Mike Smith, a steady presence in the crease, of whom few Canadians get to see much because he plays for the Phoenix Coyotes.

Up front, the corps was led, as ever, by a who’s who of NHL captains and stars—Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry. Patrick Sharp and Rick Nash counted among returnees from Vancouver, while the list of newbies read like the lineup for an NHL Young Stars showcase: Jamie Benn (Dallas); Jeff Carter (Los Angeles); Matt Duchene (Colorado) and John Tavares (New York Islanders). There was second-guessing, of course. Some were surprised by the choice of Chris Kunitz, Crosby’s linemate with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Others wondered why Yzerman, general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning in his day job, had left the dynamic veteran Martin St. Louis on the shelf.

The biggest question, though, revolved around the health of Yzerman’s other great star, Steven Stamkos, who’d been named to the team despite suffering a broken tibia less than two months earlier. Stamkos is a true game-breaker—the best pure goal-scorer the game has known since Brett Hull retired, but with a work ethic that the languorous Hull would have found appalling. If anyone could make the record recovery in time to play in Sochi, it was Stamkos. But the timeline looked ambitious even for him, so naming the sniper from Markham, Ont., was more than anything a tip of the hat. Under Olympic rules, he could be replaced up until two hours before Canada’s first game, on Feb. 12.

It’s early afternoon in Adler, Russia, and the midday sun is cutting through high-mounted windows, casting a band of warm light across the goal line at one end of the practice rink. Team Canada has finished an off-day workout in preparation for its semifinal match against Team USA. But the thunder of pucks hitting boards goes on, as one player, wearing a black jersey, remains on the ice firing shot after shot.

Extra time after practice for healthy scratches is a hockey convention, and P.K. Subban hasn’t seen action since Canada’s 6-0 drubbing of Austria in the second game of the round robin. But in keeping with his reputation for dramatics, Subban has stretched this gesture a little too far. Far from seeming keen, he looks sullen, detached from the rest of the team. As the minutes drag on—10, then 15—waiting reporters trade glances. How long will he keep it up?

That the Subban question was what passed for controversy on Team Canada is actually a mark of how smoothly things went for the group. Truth was, the 24-year-old from Toronto did park his ego; did refrain from whining; did avoid encounters with the press that could lead to misunderstandings. That he never quite fit into Babcock’s plans was hard for adoring Habs fans to grasp—nothing sends a jolt through the Bell Centre in Montreal like Subban on the rush. Same goes for the city’s voracious, hyper-vigilant hockey media.

Suffice to say, “Whither P.K.” was the sort of story that through the fall of 2013 could have stolen coaches’ attention from more pressing issues. To the credit of everyone involved, it didn’t. As Babcock and company looked ahead to Sochi, it became clear that new, extraordinary steps would be necessary to prepare the players for a truly foreign hockey experience, which even Subban’s prodigious skating ability couldn’t paper over. It wasn’t just that international ice surfaces are wider; it was that they are configured differently than NHL rinks—the lines and nets are in different places. And in Sochi, the tournament pools would include teams that, while clearly inferior to Canada on paper, were accustomed to those features and coached to make the most of them. Switzerland. Slovakia. Norway. Latvia.

There was also the issue of playing in a distant land, and while the players would be put up in the athletes village and largely insulated from culture shock, the effect was not to be underestimated. Different language, different customs, different food: all well and good if you’re a summer backpacker; not so much if you’re a hockey player with 11 days to win an international tournament.

Enter Ralph Krueger. In 2006 and 2010, the Swiss teams he’d coached in the Olympics had made misery for Canada. Born in Winnipeg to German-Canadian parents, Krueger had a 14-year background coaching European club and national teams, and had parlayed Switzerland’s surprising performance at the Vancouver Winter Games into a job with the Edmonton Oilers. But Edmonton, a notorious boneyard for coaches, claimed him after just one season, and as Canada prepared to play in Sochi, Krueger found himself at loose ends. He gladly accepted Yzerman’s invitation to serve as “special adviser”—a nebulous title covering his role as all-round guru when it came to European hockey, and Europe in general.

Krueger’s role in winning this gold medal for Canada cannot be overstated, because it was he who drilled into the players’ minds the nuances of the international ice surface, which have massive effects on the way European teams play the game. Yes, the rinks are 15 feet wider than North American surfaces, he explained. But they are the same length—200 feet. What’s more, the blue lines are eight feet further apart, while the nets are set two feet further out from the endboards. “It’s something I’ve been speaking about since our training camp in August,” Krueger told Maclean’s the night before the gold-medal game. “Players would be less affected by the width of the whole surface than they would by the length of the zones. The distance between the blue lines and the goal lines is six feet less here in Europe.”

The ramifications can be felt throughout the game. Goaltenders must skate further to stop dump-ins behind the net, and be ready for point shots that are taken six feet closer. On the rush, forwards who fail to make a play after entering the offensive zone quickly find they’ve run out of rink. “It pushes the game to the outside more, and as a result you see a lot fewer scoring chances,” Krueger said. “It’s harder to create them because the game just naturally falls into that extra ice at the perimeter.”

Fewer scoring chances, of course, add up to lower scores and closer games: a lucky bounce and vigorous, team-first defence can keep things close between a lesser squad and a battleship like Team Canada. Such were the players’ thoughts as their charters began landing in Sochi, which had suddenly gone hockey-mad despite the Games being in swing for three days. Around the Olympic-area, pavilion-style bars had popped up for the express purpose of watching hockey, their walls festooned with mural-sized images of Russian hockey greats: Vladislav Tretiak, Valeri Kharlamov, Alexander Ovechkin.

Canada’s opener against Norway unfolded true to Krueger’s forecast. With one former NHLer in their lineup, the Norwegians worked diligently to channel Canada’s attack to the outside. When the final horn sounded, the underdogs were pleased with the result: a 3-1 loss to the champions, in which Canada had fired 38 mostly harmless shots on goal. Funny thing was, Babcock was no less pleased. When someone pointed out that Canada had mopped the floor with Norway 8-0 in Vancouver, on the NHL-sized surface, he shrugged. “What I like about tonight’s game for us was that it was hard,” he said, leaning close to the microphone for emphasis. “We had enough chances for the score to be different, but so what? We didn’t score. Our power play wasn’t dangerous, and we even gave up a goal on the penalty kill. So we’ve got lots to work on.”

Against Austria, a less rugged team than Norway, they fared better on the scoreboard, winning 6-0. It was Subban’s only audition—he got 11:41 of ice time, while Babcock tried Luongo in goal and Duchene up front. But it wasn’t much of a test. That would come two nights later when the Canadians encountered Finland, a team with a healthy mix of veterans and youngsters; NHLers and pros from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The Finns played the game Krueger described to a tee and, despite being outshot 27-15, pushed Canada to overtime. The game was settled only with a brilliant rush by Doughty and a wrist shot that slipped under the pads of goaltender Tuukka Rask. Once again the Canadians were reminded how far they were from waltzing off with the gold. As Doughty later put it: “We needed to pull up our socks.”

All very worrying from a Canadian perspective. But if you wanted real drama, Russia was the team to watch. As ever, the squad featured a cast of A-list puck wizards—Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Radulov, Ilya Kovalchuk. Their games at the Bolshoy were national events, featuring President Vladimir Putin standing in his box eyeing the hordes of braying, well-refreshed fans with imperial disdain.

Nobody had the Russians as a favourite going into the tournament. But it was universally agreed that they had the talent to take it over. Trouble was, the team seemed shaped as much by politics as by reason. The Russian roster was larded with 10 KHL players, not all of whom appeared to be the best ones available. Alexander Burmistrov, a former Winnipeg Jet playing for Ak Bars Kazanin in the KHL, was left at home. Viktor Tikhonov Jr., a grandson of the great Soviet coach, was included, though he underwhelmed during his NHL stint. The pressure on the Russians was akin to what the Canadians had faced in Vancouver, resulting in an operatic sense of tragedy when things went wrong.

Boy, did they go wrong. Russia’s lurch through the round robin was marred by a narrow shootout win against the Slovaks, plus the shootout loss against the Americans in which St. Louis Blues forward T.J. Oshie took six shots, scoring on four. More than turning Oshie into a Twitter star, the game seemed to shatter the Russians’ confidence. When they ran up against the pesky Finns in the quarter-final, they looked disorganized and frustrated, outshooting Finland 38-22 yet losing 3-1. Team Russia, the newspaperKommersant declared the following morning, had been “burned in the Finnish sauna.”

Perhaps it was the uproar surrounding the home team that made Canada’s semifinal against Team USA seem a sideshow. The Canadians, too, had endured a close call in the quarters, edging Latvia 2-1 after running into a hot goaltender named Kristers Gudlevskis, who turned aside 55 of their 57 shots. In retrospect, for reasons that weren’t clear at the time, the game that followed might now be thought of as the real gold-medal match in Sochi. The Americans were flying high after their inspirational win over Russia, and their 20 goals were the most any team had scored during the tournament. Yet in its own, quiet way, Team Canada was starting to click, too. It was a rematch of Vancouver’s final, and a contest of equals.

By that point, Babcock had more or less settled on his lines, opting to leave Crosby with his Pittsburgh linemate Kunitz, as well as Patrice Bergeron, despite the trio’s modest production (Crosby by that point had just two assists). Getzlaf and Perry, linemates in Anaheim, were joined by Benn, while Toews centred Jeff Carter and Patrick Marleau. Duchene, Sharp, Nash and St. Louis were all available for use as a fourth line, or to slot into other lines according to need. At no point was any of these combinations etched in stone. Depending on game situations, penalties or power plays, Babcock was happy to shake things up.

More importantly, the team had truly bought into Krueger’s prescription for success on the international ice surface. They’d focused their game on the middle of the rink, defending it hard in their own zone but attacking it hard on offence, rather than drifting into the open ice along the sides. Seven of Canada’s 13 goals had come from defencemen Doughty and Weber, which many saw as a sign of trouble. Krueger took it as good news. “The players who like the shorter zones the most are the D who can skate and shoot,” he said. “When someone like Weber is letting it go six feet closer to the net than he would in the NHL, well, that’s an amazing distance for a guy who shoots at 105 miles an hour.”

The game, though low-scoring, exceeded its billing. Some 11,172 fans crammed into the Bolshoy, and the competing chants of “CA-NA-DA!” and “U-S-A!” started before the puck dropped. Both goaltenders were brilliant, with U.S. netminder Jonathan Quick making difficult stops against Bergeron and Doughty in the first period. But at 1:41 of the second, Jamie Benn made a nifty back pass to Jay Bouwmeester, then deflected a slap-pass by the lanky defenceman into the net. It was all Canada would need.im Lake, B.Cs

Carey Price was brilliant at the other end, stopping all 22 U.S. shots in what might have been the most entertaining 1-0 game ever played. “That’s as fast a game as I’ve ever been part of,” said U.S. coach Dan Bylsma after the game. “We missed our opportunity to play for gold. But we lost it to a team that is right up there, as the best in the world.”

In the Global compendium of oxymorons, somewhere after “Russian efficiency,” you will find the entry for “Swedish hyperbole.” The next edition should include a photo of Tommy Boustedt, general manager of that country’s hockey team because, after the comic understatements his players had served up all week, his words on Sunday night landed like an anvil. “I speak for our players, coaches and all our staff and we are very upset today,” he told a hushed press conference after Sweden’s gold-medal loss to Canada. “Our opinion is that the IOC has ruined one of the greatest hockey days in Swedish history.”

The room fell silent as Boustedt unspooled the events of the past five hours: Niklas Bäckström, star centre for the NHL’s Washington Capitals, and a key player for Sweden, had tested positive for prohibited levels of pseudoephedrine. Boustedt had been told to attend a hearing only two hours before the gold-medal game was to start, but Bäckström was already warming up down at the Bolshoy Ice Dome. So the GM rode down from the athletes village by bicycle to deliver the bad news: Bäckström’s Olympics were over.

The normally buttoned-down Bäckström struggled to control his emotions afterwards. “I was very sad, and honestly I felt bad for the guys,” he said, explaining that he’d obtained clearance before the Games to take Zyrtec-D, an allergy remedy containing pseudoephedrine. Testers had come to him after Sweden’s quarter-final against Slovenia, he said, when he was dehydrated and concentrations of substances in his urine would be high. Boustedt was downright livid, describing Canada’s win as “one of the worst games” the Swedes had beheld because of Bäckström’s absence. “It was meant to be the most important game of Niklas’s life,” he fumed. “Then I come cycling like a f--king idiot, telling him he can’t play.”

Would the Swedes have won with Bäckström in the lineup? The better question is whether they had any hope without him. The 26-year-old forward had been playing at a point-per-game pace in the NHL. He was a key, two-way centreman for his team in Sochi, which was already playing without offensive mainstays Henrik Zetterberg and Henrik Sedin. Bäckström’s absence thus forced coach Par Marts to shake up his lines, prompting the soft-spoken coach to accuse the IOC of disregarding its own rules. “If we’re going to compete with a team like Canada, we need all our best players,” he said simply, “and we didn’t have them.”

So if there’s a stain on Canada’s gold, this is it. Yet it was clear that—Bäckström or no Bäckström—the Canadians were not going to be denied, while a look back at their impressive tournament record suggests the injury-depleted Swedes really were second best. Canada outshot every single opponent. The team never trailed in a game. It never allowed more than a single goal in a match, finishing with a microscopic 0.50 goals against average.

In the gold-medal game, Sweden had only a handful of quality chances after Jonathan Toews opened the scoring at 12:55 of the first. More ominous still for the Swedes, Crosby got the monkey off his back during a breakaway with 4:17 left in the second, fooling goalie Henrik Lundqvist with a devastating toe-drag move that produced Canada’s prettiest goal of the Sochi Games. And Kunitz, maligned at times for uninspired play, capped things halfway through the third with a shot that went in off the crossbar.

Price, meanwhile, was unbeatable for the second straight game, stopping all 24 Swedish shots. Afterward, before a mob of reporters, the verbally frugal goaltender came as close as he ever has to sounding elated. “This could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m just really honoured to be part of it,” he said, and it was hard to imagine a better summation. With that, the Canadians retreated to their dressing room, dignified, calm and orderly. And as the sun sank into the Black Sea, hundreds of happy Canucks who had travelled halfway round the world to watch their heroes did likewise, padding around the Bolshoy toward a still-burning Olympic cauldron, content to know that their hockey universe was still in perfect order.

Maclean's March 10, 2014.


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