Hitchcock tries to fast-track Canada
Assistant coach says buying into program key in short tournament
By CHRIS STEVENSON, Ottawa Sun
They are 26 of the best players in the world, another self-satisfied example of the offensively gifted, supremely talented bunch we are capable of assembling from this wonderful country of ours. They can score like Rob Lowe at a sorority house on Free Keg Night, or as close to that as you can get in today's dead-puck era.
But, as was evident at the Corel Centre yesterday in an up-tempo practice, Team Canada's success won't be dictated by how quickly it can skate toward the opposition net, but toward its own.
That's the way it is today at hockey's highest levels (and creeping lower in the strata each year). Team Canada spent much of practice under the instruction of associate coach Ken Hitchcock yesterday, performing "tracking" drills, working on backchecking.
In a tournament filled with dynamic offensive players, more important than what they do with the puck is how they get it back when they don't have it.
Nobody (okay, except maybe Mario Lemieux and even he's improved in that area) escapes that reality now.
A lot is always made of Canada bringing in players like Kirk Maltby and Kris Draper as "grinders" to make up a checking line.
Truth is, you don't win without having four checking lines.
That has been the theme building in the drills at Team Canada practice.
The young players on the Tampa Bay Lightning figured that out pretty quick under the tutelage of associate coach Craig Ramsay. They now have a Stanley Cup.
Hitchcock went back and reviewed tapes of the final couple of games of the 1996 World Cup, won by the Americans over Canada.
What did he learn? He expects a more physical brand of hockey than what we saw in the Olympics in Salt Lake in 2002.
"That thing that really stood out from '96 was how physical it was, how intense it was, how close checking it was," said Hitchcock. "The two games in the final were very aggressive and physical. Every player played that way, even the players who don't normally play that way in the NHL regular season."
So, playing on a smaller ice surface, a slightly different approach than the one used in Salt Lake is required.
"Checking is how you create offence. There are so many great players, so many dynamic teams, checking and work is how you create offensive opportunities," said Hitchcock. "You're asking the most skilled and creative players in the world to check, sometimes something that takes years to create. We're accelerating the process."
With that in mind, the coaching staff spent weeks designing a plan to make the most efficient use of the practice time available to them.
"To me, the teams that do really well in this type of event are the ones that buy in the quickest," said Hitchcock. "Our experience from the Olympics is it's a process. We don't face sudden death until well into September. But the key thing is to build and not take a step back. You can't afford that step back right now. You have to build every day and the players have to accept that as the key to winning."
The coaching staff is working on applying layer by layer. It's almost like painting a Ferrari. You've got this sweet piece of machinery which needs the finishing touches. You can't put another coat of paint on it until the first one is dry.
"We're accelerating the complexity of some drills," said Hitchcock. "(Yesterday) we were incorporating transition into the drills. Before, we were using a more stationary structure. The players are being put into more game-like situations and they've responded well. Now we're getting revved up."
When Canada plays Slovakia tonight at the Corel Centre, the coaching and management staff will be looking to see if the latest coat of paint is dry.
"We've seen a marked improvement in just two games," said Hitchcock. "If we continue to improve at that pace, that's an excellent sign for us."
They'll be looking for more of them tonight.