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Lessons from Turin: What happened in 2006?

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The Globe and Mail
8/25/2009 4:18:01 PM
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CALGARY - Of all the things that went wrong for Canada's men's Olympic hockey team in Turin, the most puzzling, perplexing, can't-find-an-answer-to-this day issue was: What happened to the scoring?

Canada was good in goal; decent on defence; but even with a deep roster of talented offensive players, could not find the back of the net when it mattered. After a couple of early routs over Italy and Germany, Canada's scoring attack essentially shut down. In three of their final four games, they were shut out, including the decisive 2-0 loss to Russia in the quarter-finals that sent them home early.

There are many theories as to why that happened, some of them even plausible. Simon Gagne figured Canada had more trouble than its competitors adjusting to the time change. Pat Quinn, the 2006 Olympic coach, theorized that some of the older players, who skipped a year because of the NHL lockout, still hadn't found their A games yet, even though it was February already, more than halfway through the NHL regular season.

Player selection - in which defensive specialists such as Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby - were chosen ahead of Generation Next (Sidney Crosby, Eric Staal, Jason Spezza, others) was a factor too. If a natural scorer had been assigned a fourth-line role, he might have produced the one goal they needed to get on the score sheet and help the team relax.

Whatever the explanation may be - too old, too slow, too many errors in the player-selection process - Canada looked out of sync on offence, where creativity is needed and speed is rewarded. It was the single largest factor in the disappointing seventh-place finish.

Mike Babcock, the 2010 Olympic coach, watched tapes of the Turin tournament this summer and saw a team that didn't play the game with the necessary speed or pace of tempo.

In February of 2006, the San Jose Sharks' Joe Thornton was in the midst of a year in which he would score 120 NHL points and lead the league in scoring. Thornton was as baffled today as he was back then in terms of what went wrong.

"I really don't know," began Thornton, "because during the (2004) World Cup, we were scoring lots of goals. They weren't a problem. Especially to go out 2-0 to Russia in the round that counted and with all the firepower we had. Maybe the line combinations weren't right at the time. I don't know why. It's really tough to say."

On the first day of camp, Babcock forged one potentially dominating line, featuring Sidney Crosby at centre, between Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash. Iginla and Nash didn't light it up for Canada in Turin, but they are both former Rocket Richard trophy winners, as the NHL's leading scorer. The chance to play with the multi-talented Crosby could evolve into the sort of first-line presence that was absent in Turin.

Even though Ryan Getzlaf isn't on the ice here, he could potentially anchor an imposing second line, featuring Jeff Carter, a former world junior teammate who was second in the NHL in goal-scoring last season with 46.Getzlaf has also had success internationally with Nash, a 40-goal scorer last season, and Heatley, who scored 39.

Change may be in the air at this year's orientation camp, but even so, Steve Yzerman, the team's executive director, was reluctant to criticize the player selection process that took place four years ago. According to Yzerman, it was reasonable for Canada to stick with the same essential core in 2006 until the results weren't there. And after earning back-to-back gold medals in the 2002 Olympics and the 2004 World Cup, he suggested the impetus for change simply wasn't there.

Yzerman said he'd "looked back on other experiences for Canada going back. You almost need to go through and allow the teams an evolution. It's a philosophy Kenny (Holland) uses in Detroit. You don't make a change until they prove to me they can't do it anymore."

And with limited lead time heading into an Olympics, chemistry - setting lines - really is "a guessing game," said Yzerman.

"It didn't work in '06," he said. "In '98, it worked well and we still finished fourth, so you just never know. In some ways, it's a crapshoot when you get out there. We're just trying to make educated decisions."

Gagne, a two-time Olympian who tweaked his groin yesterday and went home, suggested that it took four or five days for the players to collectively "pick up our legs (in Turin). I don't know if it's an excuse, but ... it took a while for the guys to jell together.

"If you speak to all the guys who represented Team Canada (2006) here, we're not too proud of it. For sure, the guys that make the team in 2010 will do their best to bring the gold medal back to the team again."

 

 

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