CALGARY – Nearly six months remain until the chase for gold begins anew in Sochi, but for members of Team Canada the work has already begun, much of it hinging on perhaps the biggest adjustment required for a repeat of gold in 2014.
"I like the big ice," grinned Rick Nash, who is among 46 players on hand in Calgary for a brief, three-day orientation camp ahead of the 2014 Olympics in February.
The Canadians emerged with gold for the second time in three Olympics on home turf in Vancouver. However, their most recent bid for a medal on international ice was an all-out dud, a seventh-place finish in Turin, Italy in 2006.
Mindful of that stinging experience and its breadth of lessons on the larger ice surface, Team Canada is taking steps to ensure that a repeat failure isn't in the cards in Russia.
Start with the hiring of Ralph Krueger, the former Oilers coach and longtime leader of the Swiss National program. "We brought Ralph on board because he knows way more about the big ice than we do," Canadian head coach Mike Babcock said of Krueger, who steered the bench in Switzerland for upwards of a decade, finishing a surprising sixth at the most recent games in Vancouver.
Joining a staff that already includes Lindy Ruff, Claude Julien, and Ken Hitchcock, Krueger's expertise was already being put to use early on Sunday morning, as the Winnipeg native fielded a query from Julien in regards to a penalty killing tactic, of which the latter will lead for the Canadians.
"No one knows better than him," Babcock said of Krueger. "That's why Ralph's with us. He's going to do a lot of work in advance for us."
Beginning with a meeting on Sunday evening, the coaching staff plans to make good use of their short window with players this week, introducing "details" and "terminology" of the system to be employed in Sochi, walking through such systems on a boarded ice surface at the Markin MacPhail Centre on Monday morning.
"What you do in the next three days, we've learned over time, really matters," said Hitchcock, who has served as an associate coach for Canada at the past three Olympics. "Because all of us, at the end of this event, we get onto our own [NHL] teams and we don't think about [the Olympics] until we get on the plane [to go to Russia]."
"We're going to get our team prepared here," Babcock added, stressing the importance of players becoming familiar with one another along with a need to understand the preparation, pressure and expectations demanded of those that make the team. "A lot of the details are going to be put into place here, just for spacing, for understanding what your job is, and how you have to play. And then when we arrive there we can hit the ground running as we reintroduce our terminology and reintroduce our program."
Of the mindset the coaching staff will try to instill this week as it relates to the increased dimensions of the international rink – 15 feet wider than the NHL surface – Krueger suggested a need to remain glued to the "Canadian game and not adjust to some of the spaces that suddenly arise".
"You need to make sure that you don't change your game or make too many adjustments that will weaken what makes Canada strong," said Krueger.
"I think the sucker play is that you have more space [and] you have more time so the tendency is to take more time," added Hitchcock, expanding on the ideas offered by Krueger. "It's the big mistake. To me, when we play well as Canadians we play fast defensively and faster offensively.
"That's what we're emphasizing here with the players in the next three days is we can't lose perspective of how we play."
Mindful of the big ice and its required adjustments, Canada's brass is open to making considerable changes from the squad that won gold in 2010, open to the idea of a different-looking team in 2014. Kevin Lowe, the assistant executive director of the unsuccessful squad in Italy and a member of the current management group, noted the need for players who can move their feet and the puck with swiftness and precision. "There could be a number of changes from the goal-medal team in 2010 in Vancouver," he said.
But as Steve Yzerman, the executive director of the program, was quick to note, the top players won't be overlooked if they're simply not the fleetest of foot.
"We're not just going to take the 14 fastest forwards and the eight fastest defencemen," said Yzerman, who took gold home as a player with Team Canada in 2002 and then again as the executive director in 2010. "There's going to be some players on this team that are just simply too good to leave off and you wouldn't consider them race-horses."
Without actually hitting the ice per se, those players on hand for the camp will do their best to soak up details of the game that will define the Canadian squad in Russia, a slightly different style perhaps from the one that captured gold in the rear-view mirror of Vancouver.
"I guess the obvious answer is just the space out there," Sidney Crosby said of perspective adjustments. "But other than that I don't think you change a whole lot. I think that if anything you have a little bit more time to make decisions and things are typically a little bit slower, but I think for the most part you try not to change too much."
"Like Sid said, there's just small things," concluded Nash, who tasted disaster in Turin and bliss in Vancouver. "It's different angles, it's a bit more skating – you can drift to the outside a little more if you're not careful. But for me personally, I've played a lot on the big ice and I enjoy it."