February 16, 2014 at 1:00 am

Gregg Krupa

Babcock, Yzerman refuse to buckle under Canada's weight of gold expectations

From left, Mike Babcock, Canadian center Sidney Crosby and Steve Yzerman pose for team pictures at the Olympics. (Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

Sochi, Russia – All around them is angst and drama.

But where Steve Yzerman and Mike Babcock sit, at the center of the Canadian men’s hockey team, all is calm and order. And one could feel the Canadian media observing it.

The questions they were asked sought information, they were not intended to challenge.

Yzerman and Babcock presided over a news conference on the men’s hockey team representing the nation that prides itself in giving the sport to the world, and frets every four years the gift so generous was so warmly accepted that others have mastered it, too.

Since Oslo in 1952, Canada has won two golds, in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Vancouver four years ago.

At the end of the long run by the Russians, Canada assumed the use of NHL players would return their glory. Then came the interlopers.

Dominik Hasek stole one for the Czechs in 1998. And with Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Niklas Kronwall, Tomas Holmstrom and Mikael Samuelsson all on the roster, Sweden suddenly was a hockey power, and prevailed in 2006.

The insult after the injury was Canada failed to win silver or bronze, in either year.

And now with the toll rising in World Junior Championships and the nation concerned wayward youth are not playing enough hockey, Canada has come to the Games with the full knowledge that the United States and Russia are about equal with their squad and Sweden, albeit battered and bruised is within striking distance of gold, nonetheless.

And, man, the Finns. What might lie in the tall grass, there?

It was a press conference that could easily have run off the rails under the weight of worry and expectation.

But it was, Saturday morning in the Dostoyevsky Room of the Main Press Centre, an event of soothing reassurance.

The team was off. Practice was canceled because rest is now considered more important.

Rocks ahead

Heck, Babcock and Yzerman were headed over to the Ice Cube Curling Center where the Canadian men were matched with Germany and the women with Russia, right after the conference.

One could almost see them having a couple of Canadian ales, except the International Olympic Committee commits the sacrilege every four years of banning the traditional lubricator of the great game of curling.

And, oh yeah, by the way, being a couple of good ol’ Canadian guys, they would also take in the hockey game between the Americans and Russians, just to round out the day.

“Um, well, because I think it’s going to be a very good hockey game,” Yzerman said, softly, when asked why he would do that. “For that reason alone, I would go watch it.

“I think it should be very entertaining.”

His sidekick concurred.

“Yeah, just to follow up on what Steve said, I think it would be exciting to go and watch the game,” Babcock said.

It began to occur in thoughts that the Stevie Y. & Babs Show was more about lifestyles of Stanley Cup winners than the great national issue of whether the Canadians will win the gold in men’s ice hockey.

When it comes to two of the lion hearts of the past two decades of Red Wings success, instead of vexation and disquiet there is nonchalance and preparation.

They may not win the gold. And, if they don’t, even if Babcock joins Yzerman in the Hockey Hall of Fame, 30 years from now on some front porch on the Canadian prairie, one codger will turn to the other and say, “Yeah, but they blew it in Sochi! Remember?”

That said, there is no scare, in these guys

So, about watching some hockey, Saturday.

“You go to be entertained,” Babcock said. “You go to see really good hockey. You find out what the standard is, and you go to scout the opposition in the hope that in the future you get the opportunity to play them.”

But what about the travel and the different time zones and the stress on the team?

“Everybody needs to breathe,” Babcock said. “I think a day off is really important for our group.

“It is 2:30 in the morning in Canada,” he explained, at about 11:30 a.m. here, between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea. “And we are having to put in work and tell our bodies it is another time of day.

“But you cannot fool yourself for too long.

“The main thing is to race over to McDonald’s to get an Egg McMuffin before they shut down for the morning, important stuff like that.”

The team can afford to relax and concern themselves with breakfast, if only because they are so well-prepared.

“It’s important that we have another game, here,” Babcock said, of playing Finland today. “It’s important for our group to have another opportunity to get better.

“Our preparation tonight and through tomorrow to get ready for that game is critical.

“The most important thing for me is that we get better as a group each and every day. And if we get better as a team, we’re going to have an opportunity in the end, I think, to be successful.

“It’s a fine, fine line, and if it were easy, it wouldn’t be as much fun.”

So, get that down: Curling, take in some hockey, check out the competition, grab an Egg McMuffin, prepare to play Finland, get better every day.

Got it.

Fitting in

Meanwhile, things around Sochi are terrific.

“It’s been fantastic in the village,” Yzerman said. “Everything about it. Obviously, the beautiful blue sky is nice.

“It’s well organized.” he said, adding what the media has already noted, by and large, that the volunteers and staff are polite, easy going, really helpful and everyone seems to speak real darn good English.

“So it’s been a really good experience so far.”

The players are loving the fact that they can get to and from the rink on bicycles, the whole thing is so little muss and fuss.

The closest thing to an issue to which Yzerman was asked to respond was about players risking injury. But they already knew he is a big advocate of allowing players to play in the Olympics, and that he played with pain for seasons at a time, and devastating pain to win his last of three Stanley Cups in 2002.

“The guys want to be here, playing in the Olympics,” he said. “It is the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Injuries happen. A guy can get hurt just walking across the street.”

About the closest thing to criticism, or a question with a little edge to it, came when Babcock was asked if he gave the guys a day off because he and his group of coaches were so overly prepared the boys who skate could not much take it anymore.

Was it information overload?

Amid the exhausting NHL schedule, he said, “You fly over here, you jam them full of information, and then you practice them too hard.”

“We practiced 56 minutes the day before our first game. That would never happen in the NHL, at least not if I was running the team,” he said.

“Everybody needs to breathe.”

There is no worry in these guys. They will leave that to a hockey obsessed nation.

After about 18 minutes, they stepped down from the dais, answered a few more questions and went off to watch some rocks flung down the ice and grown men and women waving mops in front of them.

Kind of hard to think they could not sneak in a beer somewhere though, eh?

There is no worry in these guys. They will leave that to a hockey obsessed nation.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com
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