DETROIT — When the NHL season begins, a lot of players will begin tryouts of sorts for their Olympic teams.
Sidney Crosby, of course, is a lock to play for the defending champion Canadians, assuming he stays healthy while playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Patrick Kane, likewise, has a secure spot after helping the U.S. win silver in 2010 — if he isn’t injured in a Chicago Blackhawks uniform.
But for some players in the league such as Corey Crawford and Jimmy Howard, they won’t be only playing for the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings early in the season. The goalies are also vying for the honour of being between the pipes at the Sochi Games in less than five months.
Crawford insisted earning a spot on Canada’s team is not on his mind.
“That only puts more pressure on myself,” he said after a preseason game in Detroit. “I just want to worry about what I have to do for our team. To spend any extra time thinking about the Olympic team would be a waste of a time.”
Crawford was one of five goaltenders invited to Hockey Canada’s camp last month. He was joined by Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo, Montreal’s Carey Price, Phoenix’s Mike Smith and Washington’s Braden Holtby. Three of them will suit up for Canada.
“It’s going to be a huge three months for everybody that’s in consideration because that’s when a lot of guys will make the team — or not,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who will be back on Canada’s bench after leading the team to gold at the Vancouver Games.
Howard plans to focus on helping the Red Wings win, hoping that helps him play for the U.S. when the NHL takes a break in February.
“In the back of my mind, I’ll know that I’ll also be auditioning for this team,” Howard said last month in Arlington, Va., at the U.S. hockey camp. “It’ll make the stakes higher for every single game, and I like that.”
Howard acknowledged he will keep tabs on his competition — Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick, Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, Ottawa’s Craig Anderson and New Jersey’s Cory Schneider — knowing they’re vying for one of three spots.
“Everybody will sort of be watching it,” Howard said. “But I’m not going to read into it too much. You just have to worry about your own game, take care of your business and make it difficult on the staff picking the team.”
Each country in the tournament will have some tough choices to make when finalizing their 25-man teams, but the picks and snubs will be closely watched in the Canada and might create a bit of a buzz in the U.S. before the Dec. 31 deadline to submit rosters. Steve Yzerman returns as the executive director of Hockey Canada and his management group includes fellow NHL executives Ken Holland, Doug Armstrong and Kevin Lowe.
While their watching their teams in the league, the executives will be keeping an eye on players from their countries, conducting conference calls and filing reports. Holland, GM of the Red Wings, also plans to scout some games in person that are not on his team’s schedule.
“A lot of players from the 2010 team will be on our radar, but there will be some changes because Canada has a lot of good young players who have developed a lot over the last four years,” Holland said. “When we are playing an opponent, I know who I’ll be evaluating on the other team for Team Canada consideration.”
Nashville Predators GM David Poile is leading the U.S. team for the first time, but is leaning on an advisory group he has been a part of since its inception in 2007. NHL executives Ray Shero, Stan Bowman, Brian Burke, Dean Lombardi, Dale Tallon and Paul Holmgren are a part of the group that will file reports after each game they attend.
“When we’re watching hockey, out of one eye we’re looking at it from a U.S.A. standpoint,” Poile said.
Poile predicted most, if not all, of the 16 players from the 2010 silver-medal winning team will end up earning a spot to play for their country in Russia.
Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad, who turns 21 in late October, was too young and inexperienced to play for the Americans at the Vancouver Games. He is among the up-and-coming players with a shot to be a first-time Olympian in Sochi.
“That would be a dream come true to represent our country at the Olympics,” Saad said. “If I focus on my game and playing for the Hawks, then hopefully I’ll get to play for our country.”
And his NHL boss doesn’t mind that Saad is thinking and talking about his chances of playing at the Winter Olympics.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Bowman said. “I don’t think it’s an added pressure. It’s an added incentive.”