TORONTO — Just before leaving his final news conference at the Sochi Olympics, Canadian hockey coach Mike Babcock made one final statement to reporters about the team’s methodical run to gold.
“Does anybody know who won the scoring race? Does anybody care?” Babcock asked. “Does anybody know who won the gold medal?”
Going undefeated through the tournament in February, Babcock’s group lived up to and surpassed the expectations and pressure created after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where Canada also captured the gold.
“The 2010 team, we won, we got it done, and that was a special, special team, too, and it faced a different kind of pressure,” Babcock said in a recent interview. “This (2014) team was machine-like. It just was going to win, period.”
Team Canada rolled over Norway and Austria and beat Finland in overtime in pool play. It overcame a superhuman effort from goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis to beat Latvia in the quarter-finals, then dominated the United States and Sweden to capture the gold medal for the third time in the past four Olympics.
That was more than enough to earn the Canadian Press Team of the Year honours for 2014, as voted by sports editors and broadcasters across the country. The men’s hockey team was a runaway winner, receiving 36 votes, well ahead of 10 for the women’s bobsled duo of Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse and nine for the women’s Olympic hockey team.
“The Olympic men’s hockey team was the best Canada has ever fielded,” said Sean Rooney, sports editor at the Medicine Hat News. “It wasn’t that they had more talent, it’s that they played a disciplined style of game that took advantage of the talent they had.”
This group wasn’t short on talent. Up front there was Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and enough depth that Team Canada didn’t miss a beat when John Tavares went out with a knee injury. On the blue-line, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty were the leading scorers as defencemen carried the offence.
Team Canada outscored opponents 17-3, but its most convincing victory may have been a 1-0 victory over the U.S. in the semifinals.
“I don’t think the scores of the games were indicative,” general manager Steve Yzerman said. “I think our team played better than the scores. Defensively they were very, very good. Offensively they generated a ton of chances, just weren’t able to get more pucks in the net.”
Better than any team in recent Olympic history, this group was masterful at keeping the puck. As Babcock said, the other team can’t score if it doesn’t have the puck.
When opponents did get it, goaltender Carey Price was there. In his five games, Price had a 0.59 goals-against average and .972 save percentage.
“He gave us confidence every time he was in the net,” Babcock said. “He never got the other team going by giving up a rebound or giving up a bad goal. He was just steady Eddie and he seemed to really enjoy it and embrace the moment. I thought he was spectacular.”
Just about everything Team Canada did was spectacular, starting with ball hockey at its summer orientation camp through a 3-0 rout of Sweden in the final. There was strife along the way, including Steven Stamkos breaking his leg and Martin St. Louis being left off the initial roster before replacing his Tampa Bay Lightning teammate.
But none of that stopped Team Canada, which Yzerman meticulously designed to get the job done on the same international-sized ice that felled the Canadians in 2006.
“(Yzerman) gave me all the reasons why we were going to be that much better than we were in Vancouver,” former Hockey Canada president and CEO Bob Nicholson said. “Everything that he talked about that day, he did it in spades with the management group and with Mike Babcock. We were just so well prepared, we learned from 2010 to make us even that much better in 2014.”
In Vancouver, Team Canada overcame early struggles amid the pressure of playing on home ice to make a run to the gold-medal game. Crosby then scored the overtime winner that a generation of Canadian hockey fans will never forget.
Crosby scored just one goal during the Sochi Olympics and endured some criticism for that back home. While the captain played stellar defence and kept opponents’ top defenders busy, the likes of Jeff Carter and Jamie Benn took care of the goals.
“He’s not worried about that, he’s worried about winning,” Babcock said. “I just think Toews and him, you go through it: Our group down the middle was spectacular to say the least. Getzy, John Tavares before he got hurt and then (Matt) Duchene. The group was incredible down the middle and they were committed defensively.”
The best defence in Sochi was an offence that held the puck in the offensive zone and wore down opponents. Yzerman credited Babcock for creating a game plan that was well-suited to the kind of international hockey Canada was forced to play.
“I think methodical is a very good word, but not to the point where it was prohibiting them from making plays,” Yzerman said. “It was just: ‘We’re playing against the best players in the world and it’s one-game elimination. We can’t just run and gun, we’re trying to take the chance out of it.”’
Team Canada left little to chance. It needed an overtime goal from Doughty to beat Finland and then Benn to score on a redirection against Jonathan Quick and the U.S., but the star-studded bunch was more or less a buzzsaw.
Lionel Wild, sports co-ordinator at the Vancouver Sun, said Team Canada “met the high expectations, handled the pressure of being defending champions in Russia (and) locked down their opponents with superb defensive team play. All their NHL stars bought in to a collective effort.”
Babcock was proud of how the team continued to get better over two weeks. The progression was noticeable and the result was a Canadian men’s hockey team winning in Russia some 42 years after the 1972 Summit Series.
“I think we really enjoyed ourselves, enjoyed the competition, understood how tough it was and understood the obligation we had to Canadians as well,” Babcock said. “Great, great, great experience to get the opportunity to follow up on what we did in Canada, to follow it up in Russia. Understanding the ‘72 Series and all that stuff and all the history was special.”
And the way this group played created a template for future teams to follow. It’s not old-school, rock ‘em sock ‘em Canadian hockey, but it’s a new version of that.
“Skill and speed are so valuable, a great asset, and then asking the players to play a specific way, and it’s not really go out and run teams and try and out-physical them,” Yzerman said. “I think we were strong, but the emphasis wasn’t on physical dominance. The emphasis was on speed, skill and playing a disciplined game.”
Tennis stars Milos Raonic and Eugenie Bouchard captured the male and female athlete of the year honours for 2014.