SOCHI, Russia — Months of preparation boiled down to 56 minutes.
That’s how long Team Canada practised Wednesday in its final full workout before starting the Olympic hockey tournament. Coach Mike Babcock wouldn’t traditionally want his players on the ice that long, but with Thursday’s opener against Norway approaching, every minute was precious.
“I don’t like to waste their time, but we have to get organized,” Babcock said. “Our game plan is really simple. We’ve got to get everyone to get on a simple (mind-set) so they don’t think. We don’t want players thinking, we want them playing.”
Finally Team Canada and its roster full of all-stars will play a game, and not a moment too soon for the players.
“It’s been a long time waiting since the team got named,” defenceman Drew Doughty said. “We’re ready to play. There’s no excuses now.”
There actually could be plenty of excuses, given that flights from North America only landed Monday. Players from each of Canada’s first three opponents — Norway, Austria and Finland — began practising in Sochi well before that and are already adjusted to the time zone.
Hockey Canada has advised players how to handle it. Chicago Blackhawks teammates and athletes village roommates Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp have been listening.
“(Monday) was a long day, stayed up for I’m not sure how many hours but almost a full day and a half, two days,” Sharp said. “That was the recommendation. … I’m anticipating by the time we play Thursday, we’ll be all feeling pretty good.”
But will they be playing well? Babcock has said on numerous occasions that his team will be a “work in progress” at these Olympics, a product of throwing together players from 16 different NHL teams and hoping they jell right away.
One way Babcock hoped to ease the adjustment was by keeping teammates together. Sidney Crosby is with Chris Kunitz at even strength and on the power play, while Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and Toews and Patrick Sharp are linemates and Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo defensive partners.
Babcock also reunited Toews and Rick Nash, who enjoyed success together four years ago when Canada won gold at the Vancouver Olympics.
“It’s very comfort zone, but we’ve got to go out there and do something with that experience,” Toews said.
That’s the point Team Canada was at on the eve of facing Norway: enough with the talk because from now on everyone will be measured by results. The debate about who will start in goal is over, as Carey Price gets the opener and Roberto Luongo is set to face Austria on Friday, and that’s just one of countless story lines that developed.
But Babcock isn’t fazed by the hype.
“In the media this is what you do, you get paid to build it up,” he said. “I get paid to get ready.”
So that’s what Babcock did this week, from a light nighttime skate several hours after arriving in Sochi through Wednesday’s energetic, up-tempo session. He has noticed his team progress, even over these few days.
“I’ve seen organizational improvements,” Babcock said. “I don’t know if you know, those players are pretty good. The puck sails around pretty good.”
In order to win at this level, Team Canada must do more than sail the puck around the wider, international-sized ice. So the coaching staff drilled them on five-on-five play, neutral zone machinations and special teams.
“We’ve gone through a lot of technical, a lot of systems stuff in the last few days and I think we’re just excited to make it work and go out there and play and just let things happen,” Toews said. “It doesn’t matter who we play, we need to be ready to bring our best game.”
The best way to bring that game, in Babcock’s eyes, is to be detail-oriented in practice. With Claude Julien, Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff and Ralph Krueger splitting up responsibilities, things on the ice happen precisely and they happen quickly.
That’s exactly how these stars like it.
“The closer you can get to the game, I think the best it is just to try and feel what those legs are going to feel like,” Toews said. “I think everyone’s going to have that adrenaline pumping, a little energy that’ll take care of that. But it’s good to get out there and moving at a fast pace because we know it’s going to be a fast game out there.”
Especially against Norway, a strong skating team that has just one NHL player in Mats Zuccarello. Krueger, a consultant to the coaching staff, has watched the Norwegian national team play and passed that information along to Babcock and Co.
“They’re an aggressive team, they play real well and real hard,” Babcock said. “They’re going to give us a handful. They’re used to this ice, we’re not. We’ll get adjusted over time. But we have to grow our game, and it’s not about them, it’s about us. I’d be saying that no matter who we play.”
That, more than anything, sums up Team Canada’s approach this week. Studying Norway is all well and good, but it has to take a backseat to players getting to know each other.
“It’s mostly just us right now,” Doughty said. “We haven’t been practising together, obviously, all year.”
How this group will be remembered will be determined a lot by how quickly the players become a functional team. A few practices only represent the beginning of that process, which will continue throughout the tournament.
Because of that, Babcock’s work in shaping Team Canada is, indeed, a work in progress and will be over the coming days.
“Let’s just get better each and every day and let’s be the best we can every shift on the ice, and you never know what shift’s going to turn the game, so the one you’re in’s the most important, so play,” Babcock said. “Let’s get playing, let’s find out if we’re any good.”
Team Canada’s expected lineup for the game vs. Norway:
Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Jeff Carter
Patrick Sharp – Jonathan Toews – Rick Nash
Patrick Marleau – Ryan Getzlaf – Corey Perry
Jamie Benn – John Tavares – Patrice Bergeron
Thirteenth forward: Marty St. Louis
Duncan Keith – Shea Weber
Marc-Edouard Vlasic – Drew Doughty
Jay Bouwmeester – Alex Pietrangelo
Seventh defenceman: Dan Hamhuis
Carey Price – Roberto Luongo
Scratches: Matt Duchene, P.K. Subban