CALGARY — An NHL coach can only ever dream of assembling a top line with as much star power as the Canadian Olympic team.
Consider that Mike Babcock had Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash skating together during the first two days of practice at Olympic orientation camp. It’s a unit that combined for 108 goals and 271 points last season and will make US$23 million between them this year — more money than any NHL team could justify spending on one forward line in a salary-cap system.
Needless to say, the unit has caught the attention of everyone during practices at Pengrowth Saddledome.
“That’s pretty scary,” forward Jordan Staal said Tuesday. “When you see those three guys on one line — three star players on their own team and obviously star players throughout the world — it’s something scary.
“You don’t want to be lining up against those three.”
Even though Babcock has cautioned against reading too much into his line pairings during the four-day camp, it’s not a stretch to think that Crosby, Iginla and Nash might be skating together again at the Olympics in February.
Assistant coach Ken Hitchcock thinks Crosby should be used at his natural centre position in Vancouver and it’s hard to imagine anyone else being slotted ahead of him. As arguably the best natural Canadian wingers, Iginla and Nash are good bets to be part of the top unit as well.
For his part, Crosby is happy no matter who he lines up with.
“I don’t think you can complain about anybody you play with here,” he said. “But to play with those two guys has been pretty fun.”
It’s been strange watching the Pittsburgh Penguins star skating around at the camp in a No. 37 jersey. The practice uniforms are the same ones normally used by the world junior team and there wasn’t one available with his traditional No. 87.
Like most of the 40-plus players in camp, Crosby has been amazed by the tempo during the first two days of practice. He’s thrilled with the pace so far.
“It’s healthy, guys just want to have fun with it,” said Crosby. “Every guy out here is competitive. It doesn’t mean they’re trying to go out there and show anybody up. They’re just excited for the opportunity to be here and they want to do their best.
“Everyone has fun when you’re doing well.”
The camp didn’t turn out to be much fun for forward Simon Gagne, a member of the past two Canadian Olympic teams. He was forced to return to Philadelphia after just one day to have a sore groin examined by team doctors.
Gagne had hip surgery over the summer and wanted to be cautious.
“I spoke to him this morning — he was disappointed, but at the same time he wants to be ready for the start of the season and doesn’t want to have lingering problems,” said Flyers teammate Mike Richards.
After sitting out the first practice with a sore back, goaltender Cam Ward made it through a full workout on Tuesday. The 44 players left skating at camp have been split into two groups for the on-ice sessions and will play a scrimmage against one another before the camp wraps up on Thursday night.
There’s been plenty of evidence that the guys are enjoying the time spent on the ice. The first practice group started almost 10 minutes earlier than scheduled on Tuesday while guys like Ryan Smyth and Stephane Robidas continued to skate around long after the second session finished up.
“I just love being on the ice and being around the guys,” said Smyth, whose 85 games with the national team is the most of any player in camp. “This game is all about fun. … You can learn so much watching these guys. Being on the same ice surface, you can see the little nifty plays that they do.”
Captain question still open
CALGARY — The question just keeps popping up. Who will be captain of the Canadian men’s hockey team at the 2010 Olympics?
There’s no shortage of candidates among the 46 invited to the four-day camp concluding Thursday with an intrasquad game at Pengrowth Saddledome.
Twenty-three invitees were either captains or alternate captains of their respective NHL club teams last season.
The three frontrunners for the job of Olympic Captain Canada are Anaheim defenceman Scott Niedermayer, Calgary Flames winger Jarome Iginla and Pittsburgh Penguins centre Sidney Crosby.
Los Angeles Kings winger Ryan Smyth and Phoenix Coyotes forward Shane Doan have been Canada’s captain at multiple world championships. They’re also in the running to wear a letter, if not the ’C’.
The all-sports Toronto radio network The Fan devoted a call-in show to the subject of who should be captain on Tuesday afternoon.
When asked at the start of camp if Crosby or Iginla will be his choice, head coach Mike Babcock immediately threw out Niedermayer’s name.
Niedermayer is the elder statesman on the camp roster and will be 36 in Vancouver.
He’s won every major trophy in hockey both domestically and internationally, including an Olympic gold in 2002. Niedermayer is thoughtful, measured and considered one of the best puck-carrying defencemen in the game.
“I think Scotty Niedermayer’s got a pretty good track record,” said Babcock. “When I look at this group, what I see is a whole ton of young players and I see some guys who have been through it before.
“There’s going to be an environment and a climate that expects success and I think the guys that have been there before have a chance to calm you down.
“We’re going to ask everybody on this team to lead in their own way. In saying that, I think the guys that have been through it before will be the stabilizing factors.”
That philosophy might put Crosby out of the running.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain showed maturity beyond his 22 years by leading the Pens to a Stanley Cup title this year.
He’s a virtual lock to play for Canada, but Vancouver marks his Olympic debut.
For a player who is expected to score a lot there, adding the mantle of captain may be overload.
“To be a captain of this team would be a huge responsibility, but at the same time I think if you’re going to be put in that situation you couldn’t be surrounded by a better group of leaders,” Crosby said.
Iginla, a two-time Olympian, has been the Calgary Flames’ captain for six years. He was a late addition to the 2001 Olympic orientation camp as a replacement for injured Simon Gagne, yet scored twice in the gold-medal game in Salt Lake City.
The 32-year-old right-winger can change a game’s tempo in a myriad of ways — big hit, creative pass, a big goal — while providing solid, upbeat leadership for his team.
“It’s not something I believe that you lobby for and try to be or anything like that,” Iginla said of the captaincy. “It’s not really something I think a lot about.
“They have a lot of good choices to choose from. The captain and assistants will get a lot of support from the guys in the room because there are so many very good leaders in there.”