Team Canada captain Sidney Crosby, left, and coach Mike Babcock, right, are on the same page — gold or bust. (Nathan Denette / Associated Press)
Sochi, Russia — Since the NHL began playing in the Olympics in 1998, no Canadian team has won gold outside of North America.
The 2014 Sochi Games may be the last time the NHL participates, if a lot of owners have their way. It has been an iffy proposition for years.
And the Canadians are playing in a country with which they have been harsh rivals in hockey for 50 years.
In 16 international contests between Canada and Russia in hockey since 1956, the Canadians are 8-7.
The other was forfeited in 1987, when the Canadian and Russian juniors would not stop fighting.
The 1972 Summit Series, still a sore point in Russia along with the 1980 upset by a U.S. team of largely college players, was viewed as an extension of the Cold War.
So, how much pressure is on Steve Yzerman, Mike Babcock and Ken Holland and the rest of the hierarchy of Team Canada to prevail in Sochi?
Oh, a bit.
Having won gold in Vancouver on Sidney Crosby’s overtime goal, Yzerman, Babcock and Holland are expected to do it again. If not, 1-1 is worse than kissing your sister in Canada, especially when it comes to what they call “our game.”
Not winning the gold in Sochi would be a loss.
Standing on the ice at the end of the last game with a silver medallion hung from their necks? Abject defeat.
Players often speak about summoning every bit of their determination and discipline just to stay out there for the medals ceremony, if it is not gold.
How do they cope, the former Red Wings great who is now the general manager of the Lighting, the coach whom many in Canada consider perhaps the best in the game, and the general manager who has won four Stanley Cups?
As he sat in his office in Joe Louis Arena before leaving for Sochi, Babcock said he well understood the burden and the details of why it is so.
“I mean, I know all those things,” he said. “I’m Canadian, too. I want to win bad.
“Actually, there’s not a Canadian who wants to win worse than me, I guarantee it.
“In saying that, though, my whole life, I haven’t focused on winning. I’ve focused on process and getting better each and every day, and doing good things and good things happen, and execution and the plan.”
Yzerman sat before the assembled media in the Bolshoy Ice Center in the Olympic Park on Monday, and the most frequent topic of inquiry was the pressure.
“I guess I kind of tune it all out,” Yzerman said.
“You know, we all have goals. The players, us as management of Hockey Canada, the Detroit Red Wings, the Tampa Bay Lightning. We all have goals and expectations and we all try to live up to our own expectations.
“So, I don’t really worry terribly about the outside pressure.”
A reporter asked about a poll that determined 73 percent of Canadians believe a gold medal “is important to the success” of the whole Olympic effort in Sochi — and Canada has over 200 athletes here, including in some very Canadian sports like speedskating and curling.
“You know, I don’t worry about the pressure of that,” Yzerman said. “I think it’s unfair to the rest of the Canadian Olympic team.”
Holland sat to the side at the news conference, but immediately was enveloped by reporters afterward.
Again, the most popular topic of the questioners was the pressure.
“I think anytime you get into sports, there’s pressure,” said Holland, who has been in management of the Red Wings during six Stanley Cup Finals in 19 years.
“I think when you’re involved in the sport, you kind of go into a cocoon. I think you need to be in that cocoon to do your best, whether it’s as a player or a coaching staff.
“Does everyone here care about the significance of the tournament? Absolutely. But they’re going to wake up and do the same thing tomorrow that they did last week in Washington, or Detroit, or Tampa Bay, or Pittsburgh, or Chicago.
“Their creatures of habit, and that’s how they perform at their best.”
'You have a chance'
Babcock is celebrated for his ability to prepare a team. He first demonstrated it to hockey fans in Detroit in 2003 when his Ducks ousted the Red Wings in a four-game sweep, and many of the current Red Wings cite it as one of the strengths of the team, especially with the roster in transition the past two seasons.
As he anticipated the Games in his office, that ability married to Babcock’s intensity made his explanation about preparing for the Olympic gold medal a rapidly delivered run-on sentence.
“I believe if you do all things — if you have a gold medal plan and a gold medal process in picking your coaches and your management team, and then you have a gold medal process in developing your summer camp, and you have a gold medal process in your selection process, and then you have a gold medal execution in preparing for your event, and then you have gold medal preparation while you are over there, and you get better each and every day — you have a chance,” he said.
“But just a chance.”
Even with that, he said, whether it is coaching in a tournament at the level of youth hockey, in the NHL, or the Olympics, the planets must also align.
He recalled in detail, how Canada won the gold in Vancouver, with the Swiss team taking it to overtime, Roberto Luongo making a game-saving save against Slovakia, and playing the United States into overtime.
“And that’s a year when things went good,” he said, breaking into a smile.
“So, if you think the other teams aren’t going to be good, or aren’t going to be prepared to win; they are.
“We understand all that. But where would you rather be?
“That’s the way I look at it.
“You know, this pressure thing and all that, it’s just means like I say to you all the time, you have a chance. Let’s get after it!”
'An exciting challenge'
Babcock spoke of the players and the management group of the Canadian team, which, in addition to Yzerman and Holland includes Doug Armstrong, general manager of the Blues; Kevin Lowe, director of hockey operations for the Oilers; Peter Chiarelli, general manager of the Bruins; Ken Hitchcock, coach of the Blues; Lindy Ruff, coach of the Stars; and Claude Julien, coach of the Bruins.
“They all have a lot of miles on them, all have a pretty good resumes, all are pretty steady on the rudder,” Babcock said. “So that pressure stuff doesn’t overwhelm you.
“We’re going to work to do everything we can to celebrate like we did in Canada, like we got to last time.”
If Yzerman, Babcock and Holland can help Canada win a consecutive Olympic gold, it would be the first country to repeat in the NHL era in the Olympics.
Yzerman was asked to compare the pressure now with trying to win in Canada in 2010.
“Again, I don’t worry so much about the pressure, but it is an exciting challenge,” said the captain, who returned the Stanley Cup to Detroit after 43 seasons and went on to win two more as a player and another in the front office.
“As a group and the coaching staff, the opportunity to go to Russia to try to be a Canadian team to win outside of North America that was an exciting opportunity.
“And, as pretty competitive guys, we decided we wanted to be a part of it.”