Friday, February 5, 2010

Coaches the Key to Victory for Men's Hockey Team

This article was first published in the February 5th edition of Main Street Week - page 5, and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Week delivered right to your inbox every Friday.

Coaches the Key to Victory for Men's Hockey Team

With the countdown to the Vancouver Olympics in the home stretch, the eyes of the hockey world are focusing on the Canadian men's hockey team. The players taking the ice for Team Canada are all excellent athletes and will certainly do their best to represent our country. Having said that, keep in mind that all the countries are sending their best and the Canadian team will face strong opposition from Sweden, Russia, the United States, Finland and the Czech Republic.

In the medal rounds of the tournament, one loss is all that it takes to send a team home empty-handed. Anything can happen in these situations, ask the players that competed in Nagano Japan. The 1998 Olympic Games were the first to include NHL players and all Canadians remember the semi-final game against the Czech Republic. Heading into a shootout after overtime could not decide a winner, Team Canada was shutout by Czech goaltending legend Dominik Hasek and came home with a fourth place finish. Should we even begin to discuss the 2006 Games? Canada finished seventh behind hockey powerhouse Switzerland.

One factor where Canada may have the definitive edge over their opposition is behind the bench. Four of the best coaches in the NHL and our country are taking on the challenge of winning gold on Canadian soil. Led by Detroit Red Wings Head Coach, Mike Babcock, the coaching staff also includes Ken Hitchcock (Columbus Blue Jackets), Lindy Ruff (Buffalo Sabres) and Jacques Lemaire (New Jersey Devils).

Babcock, a native of Saskatoon Saskatchewan, has coached in the NHL since the 2002-2003 season with the Anaheim Ducks and the Detroit Red Wings. In his first year with Anaheim, he guided his team to a surprising Western Conference Championship and into the Stanley Cup Finals. They lost in seven games to Pat Burns and the New Jersey Devils but Babcock would return to the Finals again, this time as coach of the Red Wings. He finally got to raise the Cup in 2008 and came within one game of doing it again in 2009 but Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins had other plans. Luckily, for Babcock, when the teams hit the ice at the Olympics, Crosby will be one of his key offensive threats.

For Ken Hitchcock, a native of Edmonton Alberta, this will be his third Olympic Games. A defensive specialist and master tactician, Hitchcock brings experience, a gold medal from 2002 and a Stanley Cup ring he won with the Dallas Stars in 1999. Joining him as an associate coach is LaSalle Quebec native and former Montreal Canadiens forward Jacques Lemaire. A veteran of 853 games in the NHL, Lemaire has written the book on defensive hockey with the New Jersey Devils and the Minnesota Wild. A Stanley Cup winner eight times as a player, he added two more while an assistant GM in Montreal and once more as Head Coach in New Jersey (1995). He is a two-time Jack Adams Trophy winner as Coach of the Year in the NHL (1995, 2003).

Last but certainly not the least, is Warburg Alberta native Lindy Ruff. Currently the longest serving Head Coach with one team in the NHL, Ruff has worked the bench in Buffalo since the 1998-1999 season. A veteran of 691 NHL games as a player with the Sabres and the New York Rangers, Ruff is also a Jack Adams Trophy winner (2006). His only trip to the Stanley Cup Finals was a loss, to Hitchcock’s Stars in 1999.

While the coaches cannot win the games for the players, the systems they implement in the short Olympic tournament could be the difference between a gold medal and going home early. The Canadian team will have limited opportunity to practise before the tournament begins so clear, concise instructions from Babcock and his staff will be essential. Team Canada and Team USA are the only teams with NHL coaches, playing a tournament with NHL players, on a NHL rink; it could be a deciding factor in the outcome. Enjoy the games! Have a great sports day everyone.

Photo by John Bristowe on Flickr

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