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Team Canada should heed Tretiak's dire warning

Posted: 02/12/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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Canada's men's captain Sidney Crosby walks from hockey practice in the warm weather to the teams dressing room on Wednesday. Current GM Steve Yzerman has worked to bring the best players of the moment to Sochi, but in doing so he's got a very young leadership group. Captain Crosby is just 26 and his alternates Shea Weber and Jonathan Toews are also under 30.

NATHAN DENETTE / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Canada's men's captain Sidney Crosby walks from hockey practice in the warm weather to the teams dressing room on Wednesday. Current GM Steve Yzerman has worked to bring the best players of the moment to Sochi, but in doing so he's got a very young leadership group. Captain Crosby is just 26 and his alternates Shea Weber and Jonathan Toews are also under 30.

SOCHI, Russia -- Vladislav Tretiak, the most-decorated goalie in the history of international hockey, knows a thing or two about winning and losing at the Olympics. And he had a warning Team Canada would be wise to heed.

"In 1980, it was a good lesson the Americans taught us. You have to respect the competitors. We didn't have the respect for the competitors at the time," Tretiak said Tuesday at a Russian Federation press conference.

The Russians famously lost to the U.S. at Lake Placid, paving the way to the gold medal for the home side in what has come to be known as The Miracle on Ice.

Canada can't fall into a similar trap at these Olympics when facing lesser lights such as Norway and Austria in its first preliminary games. Finland is Canada's final opponent before the playoffs that lead to the medal round.

A loss to Norway or Austria could set Canada up for a must-win against Finland and with the tournament's top goaltending trio of Tuuka Rask, Kari Lehtonen and Antii Niemi, the Finns present a dangerous challenge.

Canada is the favourite heading into this Olympic tournament but there are challenges to face. And while it should surprise no one if they win gold, it should not come as a shock if they're out of the medals when all is done.

There are pitfalls such as a lack of chemistry and Canada's struggles on the big ice that must be overcome.

Team Canada assistant coach Ken Hitchcock is now on his fourth Olympic coaching staff with a pair of golds on North American ice and a disastrous seventh-place result in 2006 the last time the tournament was played in Europe on international-sized ice.

Hitchock says Canada must adjust to the surface and style played on it.

"The big ice game is a squished-can game. The blue-lines are closer, so point shots are relevant. There's less time on the power play north and south. It's a different game here," said Hitchcock, following Canada's skate Tuesday.

"We have to adapt to their game. We can't just bring our game over here and make it work. We can't jam our game down this ice. We're learning to adapt. We can adapt on checking, we can adapt on offence and we can adapt on transition. We have pretty smart players here."

Team Canada made all kinds of mistakes in 2006 and Hitchcock says he and head coach Mike Babcock have learned a number of lessons, from making sure they didn't bring injured players -- they had to sit four players out of practice in '06 -- to bringing speed. The Canadians were old, slow and injured by the time they hit the ice in Italy, making it really no surprise they finished out of the money.

Norway is an experienced team with over half its roster having played 60-plus international games together. Norway will present a challenge for Canada in the opener and will be stiffer competition than some suspect. They have chemistry that Canada will be chasing early on.

"The one thing that Mike and I have gone through is, we understand chemistry is something you have to adjust to daily. What's out there (Tuesday) for practice might all change. We've learned over time, if it's not there chemistry-wise, move. Because if it's not there early, it's not there later," said Hitchcock.

Scoring leaders

Canada is the ultimate all-star team with scoring leaders and captains from teams across the NHL. They're all first-line forwards or top-pairing defencemen with their club teams. But there's only so much ice to go around with this team.

"Guys have to park their egos. When it's your time to go, go. Don't sit their and wonder what the coach is thinking. Don't sit and wonder, 'Am I going to get on the ice?' Don't wonder what your family is thinking," said Hitchcock.

"When it's your turn to go, go. Give us quality and don't worry about the quantity. No player is going to play the minutes he does in the NHL. It's not even going to be close."

When Canada won gold in 2002 at Salt Lake, GM Wayne Gretzky fell in love with his group and brought players to Turin that were either injured or a little past their prime.

Current GM Steve Yzerman has worked to bring the best players of the moment to Sochi, but in doing so he's got a very young leadership group. Captain Sidney Crosby is just 26 and his alternates Shea Weber and Jonathan Toews are also under 30.

Will they be able to steer this team when adversity strikes?

"I don't think you really know that until you get people in competition," said Hitchcock. "(Scotty) Niedermayer never said anything until it was right on the line, then he said a lot. He held back. He let other people take the verbal (lead) during the competition, but when it was on the line, in the final game, he was very vocal. He spoke up at the right time. So I think if you've learned anything, timing is everything in this type of competition.

"It's very similar to 2002. We waited right until the end and then Mario (Lemieux) and Steve (Yzerman) and Rob Blake and Al MacInnis spoke up at the end, when we needed it the most. Sid doesn't say a lot, but what he says makes sense. And I think he's got similar personalities in support. (Toews) is the same way. He's a quiet guy, very sincere.

"What these guys do is, they bring a seriousness to the way we go about our business. So they're the ones asking all the questions at practice. They're asking all the questions post-practice. They want all the details in place before we play. That's what brings a seriousness to our business and makes it really professional."

Canada has a deep and incredibly talented roster. If they can solve the issues of playing on the big ice and gel quickly while continuing to raise their game, Canada should be in the hunt.

One other area is a concern, however, and that's goaltending. Babcock has yet to publicly name a starter and the staff hasn't informed the goalies who will play Thursday.

Goaltending is the ultimate wild card and it can undo all the other good work a team puts forth.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2014 D3

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