Friday, August 28, 2009

Team Canada Coaches Have All-Star Power, Too

We hear all about the all-star cast of players and how Canada could field two Olympic men’s teams. But what about the coaches? Has anyone checked their talent level lately?

Look closely, and you’ll see this year’s coaching staff is equal to the Rick Nash-Sid Crosby-Jarome Iginla line. It kind of makes you froth at the mouth at the thought of it.

Mike Babcock, who made a splash in 2003 when he took a most unlikely team, the Anaheim Ducks, to the Stanley Cup playoffs, has since pocketed a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings (2007-08), a team he head-manned to the final in two consecutive seasons.

Ken Hitchcock also has back-to-back seasons where he took his team to the final – the Dallas Stars – which won a Stanley Cup under his watch in 1998-99.

Given that Jacques Lemaire has 11 Stanley Cup rings, it’s hard to fathom that this is his first invite to Team Canada. He coached the New Jersey Devils to a Stanley Cup in 1994-95, and the rest are from his tenure with the Montreal Canadiens – nine of them as a player.

Lindy Ruff doesn’t have a Stanley Cup to his name, but he did take the Buffalo Sabres to the final in 1998-99, coincidentally facing Ken Hitchcock’s Dallas Stars.

This is perhaps the greatest collection of hockey minds ever assembled.

The August orientation camp in Calgary is all about team-bonding, getting acclimatized, and that it’s the only time it will have together until February in Vancouver.

“This whole camp is about us getting to know them and them getting to know us,” says Ryan Smyth, “because once you get into the tournament, one practice, and you’re right into it.

And while everyone discusses the players and their connecting with each other on and off the ice, it’s almost more important for the coaches.

According to Hitchcock, “It’s really important from a chemistry standpoint. The players can’t feel any indecisiveness from us. They have to feel like we’re just snapping and going and that we’re really in it together. We’re a little rusty. Our yelling voices aren’t there yet. We’re not as crisp in the first practice. The players have to feel from us that these guys can go from drill to drill or from sequence to sequence or from system to system seamlessly.”

This is the first time Hitchcock has worked with Babcock, who he says is very good at the how and the why. “A lot of coaches are good at the how. He’s really good at the why.”

Babcock’s strong A-type personality is another reason for his success. That and the fact he is very focused and intense. He expects it to get done – period.

“If it’s not done right, he doesn’t care what the name is on the back, what the number is, where you’re from, who you play for – he treats everybody the same,” confirms Hitchcock. “When he says you’ve got to play on 200 feet, you’ve got to play on 200 feet. And when the discussions on the personnel come, he’s going to be very determined that his voice is going to be heard. He wants to trust players.”

One of the first criteria Babcock addressed was that he expected every player to play the full ice surface. But this camp isn’t about making the team. What the players do in regular season is what will determine their spot on the roster. “We’ve got three months in management of watching these guys every day, and we’ll see who’s playing at the top of their game.“

But he is also extremely clear as to how a player might make the team, even the goalies. Pure and simple, outplay the other guy. Outplay the other guy and you’ll be at the top of your game, and probably at the top of the league.

Ryan Smyth understands his coach’s message. “You’ve got to check your egos at the door and adapt to the role that the coach wants you to be in. Whatever is said, that’s the way it’s got to be. You’re going for one prize. It’s an ultimate prize. It benefits everybody.”


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