Big ice has Canada thinking big picture

In this 2006 file photo, Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo fails to stop a goal by Finland's Teemu...

In this 2006 file photo, Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo fails to stop a goal by Finland's Teemu Selanne in the first period of their men's ice hockey game at the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. (REUTERS)

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:29 PM ET

Canada isn't going to make the same mistake our nation made at the last Olympic Games on the big ice over here.

Not again.

It's one reason why Mike Babcock, clearly ear-marked to return as coach of Canada for the Sochi Olympics, has been at the world championship as a special observer at the invitation of Hockey Canada.

"No question, we picked the wrong team for that Olympics," Team Canada general manager Kevin Lowe admitted Monday. "That team we took to Torino 2006 had a lot of great players, but some of them we selected weren't the right players to play on the big European ice surface. We didn't have enough speed. And we were a little bit long in the tooth.

"We came off winning the World Cup of Hockey a year and a half before that. They were the right players to play on the North America ice surface but not over here. That was the biggest mistake we made. You need to be here and live it to be thinking what style of play and what kind of system you want to use. You can't just be handed a bunch of video tapes and possibly be prepared for this.

"Even just having Babcock over here to talk to, watching and thinking big ice, helped to plan."

Olympic GM Steve Yzerman said it made sense to have Babcock around.

"In the case of the coach, it's not just the Canadian players but other countries' players and coaches to watch and see how they're approaching the games," said Yzerman.

As much as this world championship is about what happens this week, there's a big picture here like Canada has never tried to paint before.

"We're going to have a better idea what we need for Sochi. When a player's name comes up, we're going to need to be able to answer 'Not going to be good on the big ice,' if that's the correct assessment," added Lowe, who was on Wayne Gretzky's gold-medal management team for Salt Lake 2002 and the no-medal team in Turin. Lowe served the same role for Steve Yzerman's Vancouver 2010 gold-medal group and is back on board for Sochi 2014.

Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said he didn't put Yzerman and his Olympic management team together this far ahead of the Olympics -- which aren't even an official go yet due to the lack of a new NHL collective bargaining agreement -- because he had some extra money to throw around.

"We certainly felt we could have been better in Torino if we'd spent a little more time on the selection part of it," Nicholson said. "I think with our success at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake and at the World Cup of Hockey in 2006, we took a little bit for granted and didn't give enough consideration to the big ice over here.

"When I first started talking to Steve about Sochi, he told me he thought we could have done even better if we'd taken more time ahead of the Olympics and knew certain players better before the selection process."

Which is what Mike Babcock is doing here.

While he has yet to be press conferenced as such, Babcock will almost certainly become the head coach of Canada for 2014.

And Babcock believes it was invaluable to be here. If nothing else, he's had his refresher course to take forward to Sochi.

"I coached in 1997 in Geneva and 2004 in Prague and I got to Helsinki and forgot what a difference the big ice makes," he said. "As a coach, the more exposure and the more insight you gain, the better chance you're going to have to learn and be better.

"It's a totally different game. Some very successful NHL players don't look as good when they get on the big ice and other guys look better."

Canada, Babcock says, didn't bring home a medal from big ice Winter Olympics in Nagano and Torino.

"To prepare for 2010 in Vancouver, we didn't have to consider a situation any different than what we were dealing with in the NHL," he said. "Coming over here, that's what I was trying to get my head wrapped around."

Babcock won gold coaching the world juniors in Geneva, gold at the world championship in Prague, gold at the Olympics and the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings, making him the only coach who is a member of the Triple Gold Club along with 25 players.

"The Olympic camp on a big ice surface the summer before is really going to be required to prepare how we play and who is capable of playing on it," said Babcock.

"We've really got to be cognizant of that."

For Yzerman, that's preaching to the choir.

"I've played on it. It's a different game," he said. "And having the opportunity to watch the world championship the last five or six years, you can see how certain players are really effective on the big ice and how certain defencemen who can really skate are more able to use the time and space."

Babcock likes what he saw of the young Canadian talent, such as John Tavares, Jordan Eberle, Jeff Skinner, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evander Kane, etc.

"They're good," he said. "They've had a lot of international experience already and are still dealing every day with things that are new to them. They have all next season and then the real trial period will be from after the summer camp until the team is picked just before Christmas."

While it comes down to winning a quarterfinal for Canada now, watching this team from a big picture point of view has been fascinating at this world championship. There's evidence Hockey Canada made a wise move to put Yzerman, Lowe, Ken Holland and Doug Armstrong together as the Olympic management team in advance of this world championship, with Lowe running this team as GM and assisted by Peter Chiarelli and Dave Nonis.

"When we developed our plan, we decided we needed to begin it all at this world championship and we needed one of the people from our Olympic management team to head up this team this year so we asked Kevin to do it," said Nicholson.

He, too, said you can't help but be impressed with the young guys.

"It's been very interesting to watch young players like Jordan Eberle and John Tavares illustrate in their third year coming over here, how much difference that makes. And watching Ryan Nugent-Hopkins get better every game in his first year has been real interesting to watch, too."

Nicholson said that's part of why they wanted Babcock here.

"We want to make sure we're covering all the angles. We also had Ralph Kruger involved," he said of the Edmonton Oilers associate coach of the past two seasons, a Canadian who has been the Swiss national team coach in the past, acting as a consultant to the team.

"You want to use all your resources. It's been a very good experience for everybody so far. Our younger players are getting better and we're still a year and a half away. We wanted as many eyes as possible involved."

In the end, the most important set of eyes will belong to Yzerman, the man who was general manager the last time Canada won world championship gold in 2007.

"For me in 2007, I got to know Jonathan Toews and Eric Staal," he said. "The more you see players the more you get to know them. The more you see them in different situations, the better you can evaluate them.

"To just pick them in late December, even after having a summer camp, is not giving yourself the best chance."

Yzerman said from what he's seen already, with his entire team together here this year, this is the way forward for Canada.

"I think the right way to go is to incorporate all the men's events into one group for all the years leading up to the Olympics," he said. "I think that way you can build a program as you build the team. Instead of having one group running the world championship team every year and then a new group taking over for the Olympics, I think it should all involve one group.

"The players would get used to the same management, some of the same coaches and trainers, equipment men and staff. I think that would make everybody as comfortable and as prepared as possible."

This world championship is the first step toward that for well into the future.

And it will be Steve Yzerman's legacy.

Twitter.com/sunterryjones

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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