VIERUMAKI, FINLAND – Steve Spott has not been able to rid the loss from his memory bank.
"I think back to 2010 almost daily," the coach of Canada's world junior squad said on Monday after the team's first European practice. "That's a memory that, right now, I have to live with."
Canada lost to the Americans in overtime of the gold medal game at the World Junior Hockey Championship three years ago. Spott was on the bench as an assistant to head coach Willie Desjardins when John Carlson scored 4:31 into the extra frame.
"Ultimately, we learned a lot from that," said Spott. "If anything, you realize that these are one-goal games. The attention to detail is so high, I think, if anything, as a coach, having gone through that, you can appreciate how slim the margin is for victory."
Losing that game was difficult to stomach for Spott, not because the silver medal was so bad, but because in Canada, we expect gold. And that's why the coach has made the slogan of this year's team, "The Reason."
"This summer, in the Canada-Russia Challenge, we used a commemorative slogan based on Phil Esposito's speech, 'No Other Reason,' when we talked about going over to Russia for no other reason than for love of our country," Spott explained, noting the players who went on the trip agreed to give up family time and disrupt their personal training program.
Following a loss in Game 4 of the Summit Series, the Canadian team was booed off the ice in Vancouver leading Esposito to offer an impassioned post-game interview in which he stated, "Every one of us guys, 35 guys, who came out to play for Team Canada, we did it because we love our country and not for any other reason."
"Now, coming into this tournament, we figure we know, 'The Reason,' and the reason is to come over here with one mission and that's to win a gold medal," said Spott. "The boys seem to enjoy that."
'The Whole Team Focuses on that Slogan'
"It means a lot," agreed Nate MacKinnon, who lined up as the right winger on the fourth line on Monday. "This is my first world juniors and coming over here, the only reason is to win the tournament. We don't have any other distractions."
Every team these days seems to have a motto or slogan, which galvanizes the group. And, while Canada's rallying cry is just two words, the players insist it matters.
"Seeing it on T-shirts, hats and stuff like that, it gives us a bit of a boost," said Jonathan Drouin, MacKinnon's Halifax teammate and the only other 17-year-old on the squad. "It's important to have a slogan. The whole team focuses on that slogan."
"It's our goal," said Malcolm Subban, who is battling Jordan Binnington for the starting goalie job, "and it keeps our focus centred. That's all we think about."
In the summer series, Spott and his staff handed out a cape with the team slogan on it to the player of the game after wins. And that newfound tradition will return during the world juniors.
"It's back," confirmed Spott. "The very first cape had a really special meaning for us. We were able to present that to Byron McCrimmon with all the players signing it so that was a special moment for everybody.
"It will go to the unsung hero of each game in every game."
McCrimmon, the father of Brad McCrimmon, was an honorary member of the Canadian team during the summer series when the two games in Russia were played in Yaroslavl to honour the victims of the Lokomotiv plane crash. Brad McCrimmon was the head coach of the KHL team.
Spott Knows How to Make a Point
The reason Spott's slogan may stick in the minds of his young charges has a lot to do with the intensity in which he approaches them.
"He knows how to talk to his players," said Drouin. "He's really focused on what we do. I really like what I see right now. He doesn't say something and wander around. When he's focused on you, he talks to you and I think it's great. It shows respect."
Spott makes it a point to look his players directly in the eye when he is addressing a key issue.
"We believe in that," said Spott, who during TV interviews seems split between looking at the interviewer or directly into the lens. "I think that's a part of communication, recognizing when you are looking a guy in the eye that you're making contact and he's making contact with you. For me, that's just a detail that we talked about in practice and players understand that."
Spott's message at Monday's practice: move your legs. He wasn't happy with how the team started the on-ice workout and used some profane language to remind them that this wasn't a "public skate." He had no sympathy for the group, even though it was their first session since a marathon trans-Atlantic journey, which saw the team leave Calgary at 6pm Saturday and arrive in Vierumaki, Finland late Sunday night. The whole trip took about 19 hours to complete.
"We have to make sure our work ethic and habits are above everyone else," Spott said.
"We've talked about playing club teams and when you're playing in your individual leagues, maybe you can get away with certain things, but now we're playing against the best players in the world and if you're going to get caught making a mistake or getting into a bad habit, then that's the difference in victory. It's making sure they understand the details here and they've got to stay on the same page.
"We had to bark a little bit, but the message got through and when you're dealing with a group like this, they understand it's just a matter of pushing the right button at the right time and after we pushed them a little bit, they definitely responded in the right way."
'He'll Never Come Down on You if You Give an Honest Effort'
Nobody on Canada's junior team knows Spott, the Kitchener Rangers head coach and general manager, better than defenceman Ryan Murphy, who has played under him his entire junior career.
"The main thing with him is to give effort every single time you step on the ice," said Murphy, who quarterbacked the second power-play unit on Monday. "He'll never come down on you if you give an honest effort, but if you're playing a bad game and the effort's not there, then he'll come down on you pretty good.
"He's very approachable. He knows when to come down on us and at the same time, he knows when to be a little bit more loose and joke around with us. He just understands us. He knows when we need rest and he knows when we need to be pushed."
That's why Spott worked the team hard in their first full practice on Saturday in Calgary. He wanted them to be tired and sleep on the plane to Europe. That's why Spott decided to make his cuts at the selection camp in the early evening, rather than during the morning. He wanted to spare his players a restless sleep, knowing they would face lots of travel and a big time change (Ufa, Russia is 13 hours ahead of Calgary) in the days ahead. That's why every practice or scrimmage, except one, has been in the afternoon, which is when Canada's first three round-robin games will be played in Ufa.
Not All Business
But Murphy wants everyone to know that Spott also has a pretty good sense of humour. In fact, the Carolina Hurricanes prospect, who had been cut from the junior team the two previous years, was somewhat disappointed – yes, disappointed – his coach didn't pretend to cut him when he knocked on his door last Thursday in Calgary to welcome him, finally, to a roster he desperately wanted to be part of.
"I actually expected something like that to happen if I were to make the team," said Murphy. "I was actually disappointed that he didn't try anything on me. It would have been funny. It would have made it that much better."
Apparently, Spott doesn't necessarily like to get his hands dirty, but will give his blessing to the fun stuff.
"He's been known to tell some of the guys to pull some pranks," said Murphy, with a big grin. "He's the silent collaborator."
Spott has made a number of tough decisions since the selection camp opened, but he now believes his most difficult task will be maintaining harmony on a squad overflowing with talent, thanks to the NHL lockout.
"Now, it's going to be managing egos, managing ice time," said Spott. "Obviously all of these kids play 30-plus minutes with their individual club teams and it's important for us to manage the egos and make sure everyone's on the same page. We talked about it from day one and the guys have done a great job buying in.
"It's still a challenge. Every day, they all want to be on the power play and out there in the key situations so it's making sure the communication lines are great."
And that's something the players seem to understand.
"He's a real players coach," said third-line centre Boone Jenner, one of six returning players on the roster. "You can talk to him at any time. So far he's doing a good job bringing us together and pushing us at the right time."
For Spott, it all goes back to the details.
"It's the full buy-in," the coach said. "The technical side through video, through practice and then, obviously, the mental side and making sure everybody feels like they're part of it."
And that's why, Spott says, "The Reason," matters.