Sports Hockey

SOCHI 2014

Canada's Olympic hockey hopefuls play ball hockey

By Eric Francis, Calgary Sun



No more than 30 minutes after players on the world’s most expensive ball hockey team dropped their team-issued sticks and gloves for a water break, Ken Holland sauntered over to a handful of his Team Canada colleagues.

“So…” deadpanned the Detroit Red Wings GM as he sat down with in the stands at WinSport with executive director Steve Yzerman, vice-president of hockey operations Brad Pascall and managers Peter Chiarelli and Doug Armstrong. “Who do you like?”

The group burst into laughter at the mere thought of being able to glean anything from an exercise that may as well have included making hockey nets out of frozen boots.

Choosing to avoid the insurance hit of $1 million that would’ve come from skating at the two-day Olympic orientation camp, Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock opted to run Monday’s practice like a high-school gym class.

Players were all issued the same sticks (remember those bendy ones in school we tried curving ourselves?), gloves, t-shirts, shorts and shoes for a casual walk-through of sorts aimed at showing players systems.

Using those orange balls every Canadian kid has been hit with while frozen, they simulated penalty kills, powerplays and even practised line-changes on the Olympic-sized ice covered in sheets of wood that looked like Lego from afar.

The only equipment goalies wore were their massive gloves — something they exchanged with one another like kids do with their younger brothers when they tire of guarding road-hockey nets.

The only thing missing was the random shouting of “car” or someone’s mom calling them in for lunch.

“My save percentage was terrible,” said Carey Price with a laugh, echoing the sentiments of a 45-man group that did plenty of laughing at themselves and the situation.

“I thought I had a pretty good running stride,” said Brad Marchand with a smile when asked to assess his play.

“I have a few things to work on — I’m not the best ball-hockey player. Thing is you can read the systems on paper, but it’s much different to see them on the ice. At the same time, it adds a little bit of fun.”

As silly as it all looked, it was a great idea — something Babcock may actually be remembered for as an innovator of sorts.

“I thought it was a good teaching tool and a great day for us,” said Babcock, who thought up the idea after consulting with Michigan State basketball coaching legend Tom Izzo and Detroit Lions quarterback coach Todd Downing.

“Tom talked a lot about walk-throughs — it’s part of the reason he believes they’ve been to six Final Fours in the last 50 years,” said Babcock, head coach of the Detroit Red Wings. “Todd talked of walking through plays and the muscle memory and the time and space they demonstrate.

“What we’re trying to do is get them comfortable with the way we want them to play when we arrive in Sochi. When we get to Sochi, they’ll be way ahead of where they’d be if we didn’t do this.”

Admittedly uncertain how it would turn out, Babcock says he guarantees his Red Wings will soon be doing walk-throughs in their hotel.

“Let’s not kid ourselves — I’d rather be skating,” Babcock said. “I could learn a whole lot more about these guys then.

“But I thought this was great. No one got killed. There was no wear and tear on the body. It was fun, it was different, and I talked to several key guys who said the players liked it.”

The bonding continued into the afternoon with a team golf outing at Canyon Meadows Golf & Country Club, where there were plenty more laughs — and likely wagers.

Meanwhile, observers feverishly put line combos on Twitter, fuelling the debate on who has the edge when it comes to cracking the final roster in February. (Admit it, Steve Stamkos, Logan Couture and John Tavares is intriguing, as is Rick Nash, Jonathan Toews and Eric Staal).

“Let’s watch them for three months — whoever plays good gets to play,” said Babcock, insisting nothing should be read into the trios and pairings he assembled.

“I want every one of these guys thinking they have a chance to be Olympians. Don’t read into anything that happened here.”

He knows that won’t prevent Canadian hockey fans from altering their roster predictions following a ball-hockey simulation.

“They’re allowed to,” added Babcock with a smile.

“When they get them all worked out, tell them to send ’em to me.”

And to Ken Holland.

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