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Masters: Sutter cracks the whip; demands Canadian style

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Mark Masters
12/18/2013 7:51:21 PM
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COPENHAGEN – Just minutes into Wednesday's practice, an irritated Brent Sutter stopped the proceedings and called the 25 players over for a stern talking-to. The message was simple.

"We needed to be better," the head coach of the Canadian junior hockey team explained. "We need to make sure we form an identity, make sure we have an element to our hockey team that we have to have and that's to be a hard-working team, that's to be a team that's going to play in a way that needs to be played.

"Everyone knows that it's a skilled group, everybody knows that it's a group that's elite in its age group in Canada, but there's intangibles and things that we need to continue to get better at: competing, working, playing hard, winning battles, making sure we're responsible defensively, making sure that, in the offensive zone, we got guys going to the net, all the things you need to do to be a successful team.

"Practice didn't start off the way I liked and I just addressed it."

And if the words weren't enough, Sutter put his charges through more than 30 minutes of battle drills, including one called "The Gauntlet." That drill saw all the players line the side boards and then, one-by-one, each would skate down the line on the inside getting body checked every few strides.

WATCH: Canadian players go through The Gauntlet: http://bit.ly/19TkOeR

"That's probably the old school coming out of me a little bit," said the 51-year-old Sutter, who is the owner, general manager and head coach of the Western Hockey League's Red Deer Rebels. "It's about getting the guys involved. You got to get in the trenches to win hockey games. You're going to have to give hits and take hits, especially along the boards. The ice surface over here is obviously a little bit bigger, but the board-work and the trench-work is still a big part of the game.

"It's just something to get the guys engaged. And you saw it here today, after we did a couple of those types of drills, the guys were more in sync and more in tune with their emotional level, their intensity level picked up."

Sutter has employed this drill in the past, notably ahead of the 2007 Canada-Russia Super Series, which saw his team post a dominant 7-0-1 record. But most of the players on the ice in the Danish capital on Wednesday hadn't gone through "The Gauntlet" in quite some time, if at all.  

"That was a first for me," admitted Derrick Pouliot, a Portland Winterhawks defenceman drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins eighth overall in 2012. "That's definitely old school. I wasn't sure what was going on and then he said to go through everybody and I was like, 'Ooooookay.'"

"My dad used to do it with our teams in minor hockey," said centre Scott Laughton, a Flyers prospect, who captains the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League. "I think some of the boys were wondering what was going on, but I knew what was up. It was pretty cool to see."

"I used to do that when I was a little younger in minor hockey when I first started hitting," said London Knights forward Bo Horvat, who was picked ninth overall by the Canucks in June. "It was good to get the boys going, a little team bonding and I think the boys really enjoyed that."
 
But "The Gauntlet" was far from the only battle drill employed by Sutter, who has a well-earned reputation for demanding discipline, including asking that players shave facial hair and cut any long hair before coming to camp. On Wednesday, he also had the team gather around the centre-ice circle and watch as two guys battled for the puck. 

"You definitely put more effort into it when you see the whole team there," said Laughton. "I think it brings the guys together when you battle together and you battle with each other. I think it really sends a message."

"Everybody's watching," added Horvart, "and you don't want to look stupid out there or anything like that."

The battle drills and Sutter's speech were designed to set the template for the team's identity. Canada hasn't won a gold medal at the world junior championship in four years and last year missed the podium altogether, snapping a 14-year medal streak. Sutter, who has an unblemished record behind the world junior bench, leading Canada to titles in 2005 and 2006, was brought in to right the ship.

"Canada's never won anything when they thought they could win it strictly on skill," Sutter said. "You've got to have those other things and it doesn't matter at what level. It's stuff that we have to continue to dig in with these guys and get them to understand. And they're a pretty receptive group, very coachable group and they're sponges and it showed today."

"We've got to take it day-by-day," said Laughton, a top contender to be Canada's captain when the tournament opens on Boxing Day. "That's the most important thing and just be a hard-nosed team to play against. Play Canadian hockey: good on the forecheck and good on the cycle. We got a bunch of big guys that can move pretty well so I think that's going to be the identity."

"We want to be a hard team to play against," said Horvat. "We want to play hard every game, take it day-by-day, and that message definitely got across at practice."

Sutter wants his team to remain humble and hungry so he wasn't thrilled to learn the oddsmakers at Bodog have installed Canada as 7/4 favourites to win the gold medal. The defending champion Americans, host Swedes and Russians, who beat Canada in the bronze medal game a year ago, were all 3/1.

"Last I saw, another team won the gold medal last year and we finished fourth so people can say what they need to say on the outside, but we have a lot of work ahead of us," said Sutter. "You're always favoured. Canada is always favoured, because it's our game, you know, it's Canada and that's all perception on the outside. But the ones inside, we've got to get busy, get to work, there's a lot of work involved and we got to dig in.

"We haven't won here in a while so we've got to get back to playing the way we need to play and if we want to have a chance in this tournament, it's not going to be strictly based on skill."

Brent Sutter (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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