SOCHI, RUSSIA - They are the Captains Serious.
The Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team, as coach Mike Babcock likes to remind, was a work in progress during their first real practice Tuesday. They have one more to go before facing Norway Thursday in the first game of the preliminary round.
There are many aspects of Canada’s game to be tweaked, massaged, pulled apart and reassembled, including line combinations that will be scrutinized and evaluated as the tournament unfolds.
But one area that seems to be evolving well is the captaincy of Sidney Crosby, backed up by alternates Jonathan Toews, known as “Captain Serious” with the Chicago Blackhawks, and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators, another no-nonsense piece of granite.
There has been a transition of leadership from Vancouver four years ago since Scott Niedermayer, the quiet captain of the gold-medal winners, retired and defenceman Chris Pronger, dispensing one-liners at every turn, was forced to stop playing because of a concussion.
The referendum on Crosby’s captaincy will, of course, be coloured by how successful Canada’s defence of the gold medal is. But in style, Crosby is more Niedermayer’s quiet integrity than Pronger’s wise-cracking presence.
Crosby was just 22 when he scored the golden goal in Vancouver, his stardom ascending and now, four years later, he is more experienced, more familiar, more world-weary after his battles with concussions and injury, more prepared to deal with an expanded role that positions him at the forefront of this Team Canada.
“I think you’re much more used to things, you’re a little wide-eyed that first time,” Crosby said. “The biggest thing I learned from a guy like (Niedermayer) is that he didn’t really say that much, he just said the right thing at the right time. The way he carried himself and his whole demeanor that he had, his quiet confidence, it was really something that was felt throughout the whole room.”
Babcock and Team Canada’s management made Crosby the captain, but not before Crosby cleared it with Toews, a gesture that is another indication he is ready for the job.
Team Canada associate coach Ken Hitchcock has observed the transition, seen a common leadership style over the years and sees Crosby evolving on a similar path to Niedermayer, Steve Yzerman, Mario Lemieux and others who have been the leadership core of Team Canada.
How’s Crosby going to do?
“I don’t think you really know that until the competition starts. Niedermayer never said anything until it was right on the line, then he said a lot,” Hitchcock said. “He spoke out at the right time, so I think if you’ve learned anything, you’ve learned timing is everything. It was very similar in ’02 (when Canada won gold in Salt Lake). We waited until the very end then Mario, (Yzerman) and Rob Blake and Al MacInnis really spoke up at the end
“I think that’s what Sid does. He doesn’t say a lot but what he says makes sense and I think he has similar personalities in support. Jonathan is the same way, very quiet and very sincere. I think these guys bring a seriousness to all our business. They’re the guys asking all the questions at practice.”
That’s what Crosby did Tuesday, skating around with Babcock before practice got underway at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
Crosby was doing most of the talking. The team had watched a video presentation before practice and Crosby wasn’t clear on a couple of points.
“He was asking about something I talked about in the d-zone video,” Babcock said. “It was really good, because obviously if he (had questions) on what I said, then somebody else probably did. There was a little confusion there, we sorted it out, so that gives me a chance tomorrow to sort it out with the group.
“We’re a work in progress. If there’s something as a player that you don’t feel or you don’t know, we encourage you to talk. The idea is to get everyone comfortable and on the same page so we can play the game fast. When you’re thinking, you don’t go fast.”
The exchange with Crosby was a good sign.
The team’s captain wasn’t afraid to admit he didn’t understand something and with what’s at stake here, there can’t be any room for doubt or hesitation or uncertainty.