Former Vancouver Canucks coach Willie Desjardins turned down offers to work in the NHL this season so he could be behind the bench for Canada at the Winter Olympics. Tony Granato gets to keep his day job at the University of Wisconsin and still coach the United States.
Six months from the start of the Olympics in South Korea, picking coaches is just one of the many contrasts between Hockey Canada and USA Hockey. Their rosters will be more similar to each other’s than Russia’s star-studded group, but the two North American countries are embarking on drastically different approaches ahead of the February tournament that will be the first without NHL players since 1994.
Canada is taking no risks with its thorough preparation as it tries to win a third consecutive gold medal, while the United States sees a benefit in a less-is-more approach in trying to return to the podium.
“There’s no guarantee, so that’s why you get yourself prepared as well as you can,” Canada assistant general manager Martin Brodeur said.
The best way to prepare is a matter of opinion.
The U.S. and Canada will each rely heavily on professionals playing in European leagues and mix in minor leaguers on American Hockey League contracts. While Russia will likely have a team with former NHL stars like Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Andrei Markov, who went home to join the Kontinental Hockey League, Canada has former NHL players like Derek Roy, Max Talbot, Mason Raymond, Kevin Klein and Ben Scrivens to look to in Europe. The U.S. has Nathan Gerbe, Keith Aucoin and former AHL goalies David Leggio and Jean-Philippe Lamoureux.
Because there are fewer experienced American players in Europe, the U.S. is far more likely to call on recent world junior and current college players, skewing younger at skill positions. Boston University’s Jordan Greenway and Denver’s Troy Terry, who led the U.S. to gold at the world juniors last year, could be among the selections.
Canada GM Sean Burke began preparing a year ago for a no-NHL Olympics, scouting to find potential fits to fill the positions previously held by Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty and Carey Price. U.S. GM Jim Johannson began touching base with players on a serious level in June, after roster rules were set . He doesn’t plan to put a lot of mileage into in-person scouting over the next couple of months.
“In many cases we know what those players are,” said Johannson, who has been in charge of recent U.S. world junior and world championship teams. “I don’t think our goal is prior to December go running all across the world to see what do these guys got. Let their season get going.”
Canada has already gotten started as a group on the ice, playing this week in the Sochi Hockey Open and taking another group of prospective Olympians to St. Petersburg, Russia, next week for the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov. Those are the first two of five tournaments in which Canada will participate before the final 25-man team goes to Pyeongchang, along with the Karjala Cup in Finland in November, the Channel One Cup in Russia in mid-December and the Spengler Cup in Switzerland at the end of December.
Vice president of hockey operations Scott Salmond said Hockey Canada is “not starting at ground zero” and plans to fine-tune its Olympic roster over the next several months. That’s not all that will come together in those five tournaments.
“We will have a better understanding of the players we have, what system we can put in and adjustments we need before it starts,” said Brodeur, who serves as assistant GM of the St. Louis Blues.
Burke believes he’ll have a good idea of what Canada’s Olympic team will look like by the Moscow-based Channel Cup, which also includes teams from Russia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden and South Korea.
“That’ll be the majority of our team that we’ll head into February with,” Burke said. “That’ll depend on guys, the way they play early in the season. Some guys may emerge. Other guys may drop off. But I do feel that when we get to December, we’ll have put enough work and enough effort into this to have narrowed what we think will be most of our Olympic team down.”
The U.S. has all its focus on November’s Deutschland Cup, which will be full of Europe-based pros and include teams from Russia, Slovakia and host Germany, as its only pre-Olympic tournament. Despite playing almost 50 pre-Olympic games for the U.S. in 1988 before the Calgary Olympics, Granato believes it’s a positive that the coaches and players will be able to continue with their regular teams with limited interruption.
Johannson considered a more comprehensive pre-Olympic schedule but ruled against extra evaluation time to balance out possible fatigue.
“The NCAA programs, to me, just do an unbelievable job of developing players,” Johannson said. “I don’t need to fly the guy across the world for an event when he’s going to get great competition that weekend at school and we know him as a player.”
Developing familiarity is a challenge for the U.S. and Canada, and Burke said team-building will get going right away. It’ll be easier for Canada than the U.S., so Granato expects he and his assistants will have to “get creative” to establish relationships with players — whoever they may be.
“We don’t want to leave any stones unturned,” Burke said. “We’re going to use all our resources. And we’re going to make sure that when we head to South Korea, we haven’t left anything to chance and we’re going to be as prepared as we can possibly be.”
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