Team Canada has simple goal that will be incredibly difficult to achieve - Metro US

Team Canada has simple goal that will be incredibly difficult to achieve

Steve Yzerman will be thinking it. Every player in the dressing room will be thinking it. Many Canadian hockey fans will be thinking it, too.

Only gold will do for Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics. And nobody is making any apologies for it.

Never mind Russia is currently the top-ranked country in men’s hockey or that Canadian NHL players have two Olympic disappointments to go with their golden moment in 2002. Forget recent failures at the IIHF World Hockey Championship or the fact that no men’s team has won Olympic gold on home soil in three decades.

“You’ve got to set your sights as high as possible,” said veteran defenceman Chris Pronger, about to compete in his fourth Olympics. “We’re not going there to get silver. Our goal is not to get a bronze or qualify for a medal. It’s to win gold. … I don’t think there’s one guy if you ask if they think we can win gold, they’re going to say ‘Uh, geez, I don’t know.’

“I think everybody needs to believe, has to believe and does believe that we’re going to win a gold medal. Anything less than that … will be disappointing.”

If it sounds audacious, that’s because it is.

The game’s borders have been open for decades and top players from Russia, Sweden, Finland, the U.S. and several other countries have proven themselves to be just as good or better than many Canadians.

The host country may boast more depth than any other team, but that doesn’t assure a medal of any colour at one of the most-anticipated hockey tournaments in history, let alone gold.

Yzerman, the team’s executive director, and his management team of Ken Holland, Kevin Lowe and Doug Armstrong spent 14 months traversing North America before selecting the 23 men who will wear the Maple Leaf. The final roster decisions came with as much stress and pressure for management as the players will be exposed to when the puck drops at Canada Hockey Place on Feb. 16.

It was something Yzerman was prepared for when he became executive director back in October 2008. He threw himself into the role with the same quiet intensity that helped him become one of the greatest players of his generation.

He made a bold statement with his selections, choosing a team that features 15 Olympic rookies and 12 players that are 25 or younger. It represents both a departure from the veteran squad that flopped to a seventh-place finish in Turin four years ago and a passing of the torch to a new generation of Canadian players led by Sidney Crosby.

“We didn’t specifically go to a younger group or anything, that’s just how our roster unfolded,” said Yzerman. “We’ve got a great group of young Canadian stars and at the end of the day, we just felt like a lot of these guys have overtaken some of our veteran guys and were more suitable to be on this team.”

The few veteran Canadian players – captain Scott Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur, Jarome Iginla and Pronger – will be tasked with trying to limit the stage fright that might creep into the dressing room once the Games begin.

It will also be a job that falls to coach Mike Babcock and his assistants. Babcock heads up a meticulous staff that will be as well-prepared as any at the event, but the man who preceded him as coach of Team Canada cautions that success depends on much more than that.

“The system itself will be there, the execution is the other part,” said Pat Quinn, who coached the last two Olympic teams. “That’s dealing with playing at home, playing under the expectation that a gold medal is the only thing. Dealing with those emotions because there’s all kinds of things that can happen there.

“That’s what sports is all about: To be prepared to handle whatever is going on.”

Canada opens the tournament against Norway before completing the preliminary round with games against Switzerland and the U.S. The Russians are grouped with Latvia, Slovakia and the Czechs while Sweden is with Finland, Belarus and Germany.

The top four teams after the preliminary round advance straight to the quarter-finals while the remaining squads each play a qualification game to determine who else makes the playoffs.

At least seven teams will show up in Vancouver with true hope of winning gold. Amazingly, six different countries have played in the Olympic final since NHL players started participating: the Czechs and Russians in 1998; Canada and the U.S. in 2002; and Sweden and Finland in 2006. Slovakia could also find itself in the mix this time.

Russia brings the most dangerous team to the tournament, although a lineup that features Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk also comes with a handful of unknowns that play domestically in the KHL. The Russian players have performed spectacularly under coach Vyacheslav Bykov, beating Canada in the final of the past two world championships.

They are hungry to keep on winning.

“I think this year we’ve got a good team and good chances,” said Kovalchuk. “Especially (since) it’s in Canada, it’s a religion here the hockey. It’s going to be a great rivalry again. Hopefully we’re going to see you guys in the final.”

With 13 players returning from the Turin gold-medal team, Sweden will have something to say about that. They’ve opted to go with experience – Nicklas Lidstrom, Daniel Alfredsson, Peter Forsberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Fredrik Modin are all 35 or older – but also boast the Sedin twins and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

Together with Russia and Canada, the Swedes round out the Big Three heading into these Games.

“Every dime in this tournament will be bet on Canada and Russia and maybe a few on Sweden,” said American GM Brian Burke.

The implication, of course, is that not even a nickel will be spent on an extremely young U.S. squad that fashions itself as an underdog. Only three men on Burke’s roster have past experience at the Games – captain Jamie Langenbrunner, Chris Drury and Brian Rafalski – but talented newcomers like Zach Parise and Patrick Kane along with all-world goaltender Ryan Miller make them a team to watch.

The Americans are part of the second-tier of contenders along with Finland, the Czechs and a Slovak squad that could pull off an upset or two.

While each of those teams lacks the depth of the top nations, the Canadians know any of them could play spoiler when encountered in a do-or-die situation in the playoff round.

“You’re playing that one game,” said Brodeur. “That’s what everybody has to realize even for Canada, especially with the pressure we’re going to feel, really it’s just one game. You run into a hot goalie and it’s over. That’s just the way it is.”

This Olympics will be different than the past three for a couple reasons. Not only could it be the last featuring NHL players – the league remains non-committal about Sochi in 2014 – but it will also be the first one played on the smaller North American-sized ice surface.

For the Canadian players, there will also be the added pressure of playing on home soil. The ability to block out distractions will be key.

“It’s a hectic couple of weeks,” said Brodeur. “People want you, your family wants you. There’s different events and it’s a great opportunity to do a lot of things. But at the end of the day, everybody has to understand that they’re there to do one thing, and that’s to bring back the gold to Canada.”

One major element that was missing in Turin was team chemistry. What other way is there to explain how a group of superstars failed to score a goal in three of its last four games?

Success this time around could hinge, in part, on the effectiveness of Yzerman’s strategy to bring players who have familiarity with one another: Crosby and former world junior linemate Patrice Bergeron; Blackhawks defencemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook; former Ducks teammates Pronger and Niedermayer; Anaheim forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry; and the San Jose Sharks forward line of Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.

That particular unit has been among the most prolific in the entire NHL this season, but might have to play more of a checking role in Vancouver. In fact, it could become a reality for any of the star players on Team Canada.

Babcock and his coaching staff will be expecting all 23 men to buy in whole-heartedly, even if it means minimal ice time or taking different on-ice responsibilities. That message was delivered during a competitive orientation camp in Calgary last summer.

“(We’re going there) to win the gold medal,” said Heatley. “That’s the bottom line. People will have to play different roles. Anything it takes to win the gold.”

Pronger is one of the few men’s hockey players from this country who already has one of those in his possession. He considers it among the more valuable things he owns and is eager to add another to the collection.

“It’s in a lock box at the bank,” Pronger said of his Salt Lake medal. “And it’s looking for a friend.”

Only a golden one will do.

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