SOCHI, Russia – When the Canadian management team, headed by executive director Steve Yzerman, gathered in recent months to evaluate the crop of players that would be selected to play for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics two central attributes emerged above all else.
There was the requisite hockey sense demanded from the country's very best and of equal importance, if not more so, was the ability to burn up and down the ice, the latter of significant consequence on the generally unfamiliar international ice surface.
"I think we have a really good mix of players here that bring a lot of elements," said Doug Armstrong, the Blues GM and a member of Team Canada's management team, "but the one element they all have is skating ability."
It's likely why someone like 34-year-old Joe Thornton – a member of the gold medal winning squad in 2010 and top point producer again this season, but certainly not the fleetest of foot – was not named to the team this time around, replaced by explosive types such as Matt Duchene and Jamie Benn.
In fact, the Canadian roster in Vancouver featured a number of players who were probably never be described as quick – Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Dany Heatley, Eric Staal – but could get around just fine, at that point in their respective careers, on the NHL-sized ice.
"I think you see some players that can play on the North American ice [that are] not quite as fleet of foot, but the space they have to get to they can get to quicker and hold it longer. From the corners to the front of the net the distance isn't as great. I think it's a different style," Armstrong said. "A bigger man can have success maybe in the North American game that's a little harder to have here."
Absent is a single player on this roster who can't get up and down the ice effectively.
Quickly adjusting to the larger international ice surface – 15 additional feet wide – will be among the greater challenges facing the Canadians as they look to become the first back-to-back gold medal winning squad in the NHL era of the Olympics. All of which explains why swiftness on skates – not to mention the ability to move the puck with equal speed and precision – was such a fundamental asset in the selection process.
Canada managed to win its first gold in 50 years on the Olympic size ice in Salt Lake City, but fell badly short four years later in Torino – they finished a distant seventh.
Though other gold medal hopefuls face a similar challenge – with the vast majority of talent migrating to Russia from the NHL – the Canadians (and Americans certainly) will be required to climb a somewhat higher hill, having only played on the 200 by 100 foot surface sparingly.
"There's no question," said head coach Mike Babcock, "when you've grown up your whole life playing on one surface you're probably pretty comfortable with that surface. I know we are in North America. So there's a little adjustment, we'll get it worked out."
One adjustment Babcock will seek is shorter shift lengths: from the NHL standard of 45 seconds down to 40 seconds with more space to cover and ground potentially to protect. He and the coaching staff, which includes big ice expert and former Swiss National Team coach Ralph Krueger, will also stress the need to attack inside on the offensive end, rather than linger on the perimeter as an opponent would prefer.
"As much wider [as] the rink is you still want to play an up and down, north and south game and I think it's the strength of our team to be able to play at a high speed, high tempo, all four lines," said John Tavares, who played on the bigger ice in Switzerland during the last lockout. "I think that's where we're going to be at our best."
Other immediate challenges facing Canada (and just about every country) include the required role alterations demanded of NHL stars and energy-sapping jet lag, an adjustment most countries will face in some way or another.
"We can talk about the size of the ice surface," said Yzerman, "but I think it's adjusting to playing a lesser role. You've got forwards that are used to playing 21-22 minutes a game that are going to play 10 and 11 and defencemen that are used to playing 27 playing 18. That's a huge adjustment for them all."
Stars and scoring champs are fighting for even the slightest bit of ice-time.
Martin St. Louis was the oldest Art Ross winner in NHL history last season (he was 37) and has kept the Lightning afloat save the injured Steven Stamkos again this season, but he finds himself grinding amongst 14 forwards for an opportunity. He and Duchene, a fellow first-timer were on the outside of the forward lines on the opening day of practice at Bolshoy Ice Dome.
"When I talked to St. Louis in Tampa I told him he was one of 14 forwards and that he has to grab his piece," said Babcock. "That's what we've told everyone; they've got to find a way to grab their piece."
Babcock was flipping through lineups and line combinations from the triumphant experience in Vancouver alongside assistant coach Claude Julien and came to a very simple conclusion: things can change in a hurry. Mike Richards for instance, rose from the 14th forward to a key member of an effective trio which included Jonathan Toews and Rick Nash.
"It's a competitive environment and we expect our guys to compete for their ice-time," Babcock said.
The Canadian head coach got creative in his attempts to quell the effects of jet lag. Players were given a special package for the plane ride over to Sochi, a kit that included eye covers, ear plugs, melatonin, vitamins, and compression socks to reduce the possibility of swelling in the feet. They were also told to sleep no longer than four hours (some did anyway) and stay up until midnight if possible. All to curtail the effects of the drastic change in time zones.
"Keep the players up," Babcock said of his goals for a practice that begin at 8pm local time. "We thought if we got some exercise at this time of night we had a better chance of staying up 'til midnight."