Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include the importance of the Mike Babcock-Ken Hitchcock relationship for Team Canada; how more than half the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team will reunite at a Phoenix Coyotes game Friday night; why Mike Eruzione would be uncomfortable talking to today’s Olympians; how a Matt Duchene anecdote illustrates what the Games mean to NHLers; plus notes on the Coyotes’ business and Eruzione’s Sochi security fears.
FIRST PERIOD: Babcock-Hitchcock relationship will be key for Canada in Sochi
Mike Babcock and Ken Hitchcock have much in common. Neither played in the NHL. Both came up as coaches through Hockey Canada’s “Program of Excellence,” meeting at summer symposiums in Alberta. Both went on to win Stanley Cups and Olympic gold medals, and both will lead Team Canada at the Sochi Games.
Babcock will be the head coach. Hitchcock will be one of his three assistants. The two of them will be in charge of the game plans, game reviews and general adjustments, while Lindy Ruff (power play) and Claude Julien (penalty kill) will be in charge of special teams.
But it’s what Babcock and Hitchcock don’t have in common that makes them click.
“We look at the game differently,” Hitchcock said. “I’m focused on immediate details, and he’s focused on the end run. … I fight every fight, and he wants to win the war. It’s a good balance, and it works in that atmosphere.”
Hitchcock often will suggest something, and Babcock will take time to come around or have a bigger-picture perspective. When Canada won gold four years ago in Vancouver, Hitchcock wanted Jonathan Toews with Rick Nash. Babcock wanted to see other combinations first, but he ended up putting Toews and Nash together. Hitchcock wanted a drill to prepare for a specific opponent; Babcock told him he’d work it in sometime but he wanted to prepare for Canada’s own game at that point.
[Related: Martin St-Louis replaces Steven Stamkos on Canada's Olympic roster]
“I have to defer,” Hitchcock said. “Look, I’m not going to defer to everybody. But when you have a healthy respect that we do for each other, I’m willing to do it graciously. I also feel like I can learn from him, and I think he can learn from me.”
Babcock does learn from Hitchcock. Whether he takes his advice immediately, eventually or not at all, Hitchcock constantly forces him to think and consider another side. “He’s a details-orientated guy,” Babcock said. “One of his jobs is to coach the coach. In the lead-up to the last Olympics, he was unemployed, so it was real beneficial because he was on you like a rash every day to make sure you were working on it.”
Hitchcock has extensive international experience. “He’s been to 100 Olympics,” Babcock said with a smile. “You’ve got to be older than God to do that many.” Hitchcock was there in 2006 in Torino. The ice surface was bigger than the Canadians expected, and though they had studied the personnel of the other countries, they had failed to study the coaches and their systems. They were surprised by too many things, a big reason they failed to win a medal after winning gold in 2002 in Salt Lake.
“I thought I’d seen it all until I was in Italy,” Hitchcock said. “It was a great lesson, because you thought you were ready for it, but we weren’t. We will be more than prepared for Sochi.”
Team Canada hired Ralph Krueger, a veteran European and NHL coach, as a consultant to the staff. He has been briefing everyone on the big ice and studying opponents. All of the coaches have spoken often leading up to Sochi, but Babcock and Hitchcock have spoken a lot in particular, maybe multiple times a day. How they exchange ideas will play an important part in Canada’s performance.
“We gather the information, and we try to make the right decision,” Babcock said. “It’s not about what I think. It’s about what’s right. Whatever we can do, whoever’s got the best idea, we’re going with it, and we’ll just call it Canada’s way.”
SECOND PERIOD: Coyotes honor “Miracle on Ice” team as send-off for Sochi
They reunite now and then, especially around each Winter Olympics, when memories of the “Miracle on Ice” are in mind and members of the 1980 U.S. hockey team are in demand.
Before the 2002 NHL All-Star Game, all of them showed up for a game of shinny on a temporary ice rink at a convention center in Los Angeles. At the opening ceremony of the 2002 Salt Lake Games, they lit the flame together. Groups of them have done things like autograph signings and corporate outings over the years.
But Friday night will be unique. Thirteen of them be honored when the Chicago Blackhawks face the Phoenix Coyotes in Glendale, Ariz., as part of a ceremonial puck drop and send-off for the Sochi Olympics.
“Whenever we get together, it’s still something special and fun,” said Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 team, who scored the winning goal in the semifinals against the Soviet Union. “This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this.”
The NHL sold the Coyotes out of bankruptcy last summer. Around the time the deal closed in August, one of the new co-owners, Anthony LeBlanc, brainstormed marketing ideas with the vice-president of communications, Rich Nairn.
[Also: Country-by-country players to watch at the Olympics]
No NHL teams like interrupting their season to send their players to someone else’s event overseas, but especially not the Coyotes. They have struggled to draw fans, and some of their best gates traditionally have been in February because of the influx of out-of-towners at this time of year. The new owners want to gain momentum, not stall it.
LeBlanc threw out the idea of inviting a couple of ’80 Olympians to a game. He is a native Canadian, but his favorite sports movie is “Miracle.” Nairn reached out to an agent who represents several of them, and the Coyotes ended up snagging more than half the team – Eruzione, Neal Broten, Ken Morrow, Jack O’Callahan, Bob Suter and more.
The ’80 Olympians won’t help sell tickets to this particular game – Chicago draws sellout crowds in Phoenix, anyway – but they were scheduled to play golf with sponsors and give a Q&A session with season-ticket holders.
For the Coyotes, the focus is on the long term.
“Look, we realize what a big part of our job is, and that’s increasing the awareness of hockey and increasing the brand of the NHL,” said LeBlanc, the Coyotes’ president and chief executive officer. “So doing these types of events will get us non-traditional coverage, and it gets people thinking, ‘Hey, maybe I should go check out the Coyotes.’ At the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to sell tickets, and we’re trying to sell sponsors.”
For the ’80 Olympians, it’s about remembering old times and inspiring the Blackhawks and Coyotes headed to Sochi, no matter what nation they will represent.
“I know Stanley Cups are important, and that’s what they pay you to do and it’s a business,” Eruzione said. “This is different. This is a separate entity. This is when you’re playing for your country and we’re all watching. This is their moment. This is their chance to put their stamp on hockey history.”
THIRD PERIOD: Eruzione reflects on the fading link to the “Miracle on Ice”
This is not 1980. The Soviet Union dissolved long ago, and the NHL is sending its players to the Olympics for the fourth time now. No longer is the Big Red Machine matching up against American amateurs. If the United States wins the gold medal, it won’t be a miracle.
Still, the Games are in Sochi, and old habits die hard.
“How cool would it be if the United States could win in the Soviet Union?” Eruzione said.
He quickly corrected himself.
“In Russia?” he said. “That would be awesome. They’ve been so close – silver in Salt Lake City and Vancouver. If they’re going to win, I think that would be a pretty special place for them to do it.”
The “Miracle on Ice” team directly influenced a generation of U.S. players, guys like Pat LaFontaine, Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick. Time has passed, though. It has only indirectly influenced the current generation, who know the legend from word of mouth and the movie.
Eruzione has worked in the development office at Boston University for more than 20 years and has done a lot of speaking engagements on the side, and he has spoken to the U.S. Olympic team in the past. But he said speaking to the team now would be uncomfortable for him.
“These guys aren’t wide-eyed young 18-, 19-, 20-year-old hockey players that we were in 1980,” he said. “These guys are professionals. This is their livelihood. This is their job. They’ve been in this kind of environment – whether it’s Stanley Cup games or whatever.
“Do they want to listen to Mike Eruzione talk? I don’t think so. I think they realize how special it is, how important it is for the United States and hockey and for themselves in their lives. It’s something that’s a great honor. This is their time and their moment and not ours. Ours is done. It’s over with. It’s a great lesson, it’s a great message, it’s a great story, but this is their opportunity to show the world how far we’ve come.”
Though he went to the Vancouver Olympics, Eruzione was home by the gold medal game between the United States and Canada. He invited over the high school team he helps coach to watch, and he soaked in the scene as Zach Parise scored with 24 seconds left to force overtime.
“It was amazing, because it was the first time since 1980 that I kind of thought about, ‘This is what people were watching when we were playing,’ ” he said. “Parise scored, and the whole house jumped, flipped out. And I’m like, ‘That must have been what it was like when we played.’ It was kind of nice to see their reaction because you could sense how special it was for them to watch it.”
The United States plays Russia on Feb. 15 in preliminary play.
OVERTIME: Duchene’s story shows how much Olympics mean to players
Much has been made about how Team Canada players will sleep in small beds in spartan rooms in the Olympic Village, just like the other athletes. But NHLers have been doing that since they started coming to the Games. They want the experience. They treasure it.
How much do they treasure it? Listen to the stories about how they found out they were on the team. They never get old, like this one from Matt Duchene:
Duchene went to bed at 2 a.m. the day of the announcement – and said he “needed a little help” falling asleep. He woke up at 6:30 when his phone buzzed from a text from teammate Paul Stastny, who had already made Team USA and was hoping they would end up in Sochi as opponents.
Trying to get his mind off things, Duchene jumped in the shower. He left his phone on the counter and took his dog, Paisley, outside. When he came back in, he found his phone – and found he had missed a call from Boston.
“I think I made it,” Duchene told his girlfriend.
“Why?” she asked.
Because Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli was part of Team Canada’s management team. It had to be him. It had to be good news.
“So I’m calling back, and I’m just hoping it’s not a telemarketer or anything,” Duchene said. “I’m hoping I’m not going to get some business. He picked up the phone and said, ‘Hey, is this Matt?’ And I didn’t hear much else of what he said, because I was just kind of dancing around the room.
“I was pretty excited. It’s just an absolute dream come true.”
When you can’t sleep waiting to see if you’ve made the team, who cares where you sleep in Sochi?
SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL
— The Coyotes’ average attendance is 13,123, which is last in the NHL. But the team has struggled recently, and there are big draws on the horizon – Chicago before the Olympic break, the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens shortly afterward. “We had projected we were going to finish the season right around 13,500,” LeBlanc said. “I think it’s fair to say we’ll probably finish the season close to an average of 14,000, which for this franchise is fantastic when you look over the last four or five years.”
— LeBlanc said the Coyotes are disappointed in their corporate sales – from advertising to suites. The numbers are up, relative to recent history, but they aren’t up as much as the new owners had hoped. It hurt that they didn’t close the deal until August. “We just didn’t get a chance to act on the corporate sponsorship side as much as we wanted to,” LeBlanc said. “The flip side of that is that we’re in great shape for next year, which is really all that matters.”
— Eruzione has been to every Winter Olympics since 1980 except the 1998 Nagano Games. He does not plan to go to Sochi. No one has asked him to go for a particular reason, and it would be expensive. And there is one other thing. “I shouldn’t say I’m concerned safety-wise, but I am a little concerned,” he said. “I’m not concerned for the athletes. If anything happens, it’s not going to be to the people competing. But it’s not a safe environment.” Eruzione lives in Winthrop, Mass., not far from where the Boston Marathon bombings took place last year. “After what happened here in Boston with the bombing, you never know,” he said. “There’s some crazy people.”
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