Yzerman in the hot seat

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 9:54 AM ET

Steve Yzerman's job seems rather easy, when you break it down.

He gets the pick of Canada's litter, a dream team made up of anybody he wants from the strongest hockey nation on Earth.

He'll be selecting players who want to wear the Maple Leaf so badly they'd take a Zdeno Chara slapshot on the bare shin for a chance to be on the fourth line.

His team, so full of skill and heart it would be favoured no matter where it played, will enjoy home-ice advantage for two straight weeks.

And all he has to do is win one game.

Win the gold-medal game next February and all 30 million assistant general managers in this country will be satisfied.

Check that, win gold in Vancouver and all 30 million assistant general managers in this country will pour into the streets in a rush of flag-waving, chestpumping hysteria.

Lose, and ... well, let's face it, Canada can win all the biathlon and short track speed skating medals it wants, but if we don't defend our hockey honour on home ice the whole Olympic experience will be ruined.

Good luck, Steve. And try not to worry about the pressure. "I understand the expectations," said Yzerman, the former Red Wings great who's been given the reins to the most important Canadian hockey team since September 1972. "And I'm quite confident we'll put together an excellent team.

"I can't sit here and guarantee we're going to win it because I've seen and participated in too many tournaments, been on both sides, where good teams have lost. In a one-game elimination anything can happen.

"But we're going to be thorough, to be prepared, we're going to have an excellent coaching staff and we're going to assemble a really good team. Of that I'm confident."

With the tournament a year away, Yzerman and the rest of team Canada's brain trust - Ken Holland, Kevin Lowe, Doug Armstrong, Wayne Gretzky and Hockey Canada President Bob Nicholson - have already begun turning over stones.

"We started tracking guys in the fall and then we got together in Montreal in December and put together a broad watch list," said Yzerman, who won gold with the 2002 Canadian team in Salt Lake. "Then we'll meet again in March and fine-tune the list for down the stretch and through the playoffs and World Championships. "From there we'll formulate a list of players we'll invite to an orientation camp in August."

LEARNED FROM MISTAKES

In the past, the Canadian GMs gravitated toward veterans with big reputations, even if they're weren't playing all that well in the last few months before the tournament.

They won't make the same mistake again. This time, the three most heavily- weighted months of the selection process are October, November and December 2009.

"That's one thing we saw from 2006," said Nicholson. "If it's close you always look for players who've been in those situations before and players who have won, but one of the things we learned from 2006 is to really look at November and December to see where those players are at."

"Everything counts," added Yzerman, who'll name his final roster before next Christmas. "You have to take into account previous Olympic and international experience, how they're playing in this season and how they perform in the playoffs, but when we get to a point on the roster where it's Player A versus Player B, how they're playing through October, November and early December will be the deciding factor."

Canadian hockey players come in every shape and style, from the skill and creativity of Marc Savard and Sidney Crosby to the grit and muscle of Jarome Iginla and Shane Doan. There are defensive specialists, offensive specialists, faceoff specialists, set-up men, finishers, grinders, plumbers ... it's enough to make a future Hall of Famer's head spin.

Yzerman says he's narrowed his search to well-rounded players who can really skate, guys with elite skill who won't be chasing their tails when superstars Alex Ovechkin or Marian Hossa storm over the Canadian blueline.

"Forwards and defencemen who are good two-way hockey players," he said. "The ability to get up and down the ice is important. It's not the only thing, but I want guys who can get up and down the ice, have good hockey sense and are good at both ends of the rink. I want defencemen who are mobile."

Canada also needs checkers, penalty killers and, to some degree, energy players, but they'd rather not blow those roster spots on NHL third liners.

"I think we've changed our mentality since 2000," said Nicholson, adding Gretzky spearheaded the new philosophy. "Skill will be very high on the agenda.

Pick the best players and let them fill those roles. Steve Yzerman was a key guy in '02. He's a great offensive player, but when you needed somebody to kill a penalty or take a faceoff, he's the type of guy you went with."

And he's the type of guy he'll go with in 2010. "I intend to do it with highly skilled guys, not with players who've been looked upon as a career checkers," said Yzerman.

"I hope to have highly skilled guys who can do other things if they're not on the power play. I'm looking for the top players around the league, who have skill. Not everybody is going to play in that (offensive and power play) role, so the guys who don't are going to have to be effective in other ways."

OCEAN-DEEP TALENT POOL

There is plenty to choose from in Canada's ocean-deep talent pool, including handfuls of second-, third- and fourth-year players who are too good to be ignored.

Finding the right mix is crucial. Not enough veterans and Team Canada might get freaked out when the flags start waving in Vancouver; not enough youth and they might not be able to keep up.

"Home ice can be an advantage, but it can also overwhelm you, the emotion can really overtake you," said Yzerman.

"I think it's important to have veteran guys who have that experience and can settle things down a little bit, so everyone doesn't expend all their energy in the warm-up and in the first period. You want players who know how to perform in these situations, who know how to control their adrenalin."

But since a lot of Canada's next-generation players were weened on World Junior pressure, they won't hesitate picking a kid.

"I don't think you're going to see many players who haven't put on the Canadian jersey and played in high-profile events," said Nicholson. "The young core that went through the 2005 World Juniors in North Dakota when they were 18 years old, that was a lot of pressure."

robert.tychkowski@sunmedia.ca


Videos

Photos