The Kitchener Rangers will play one more home game before the Christmas break, but fans searching for the familiar face of Steve Spott behind the bench will come up empty. The Rangers’ Head Coach and General Manager is taking on a new challenge this month, joining Hockey Canada as the Head Coach of the National Men’s Junior team. Selection camp opens next week in Calgary, with 37 of the country’s best junior-aged players competing for a spot on the roster for the World Juniors. With the depth of talent across the nation, Spott admits it was a challenge for the scouts and coaches to narrow it down to just a few dozen players, though his plan was always to host a small camp.
“The original plan coming out of Halifax was to get down to 29, because I’m not a fan of the red and white games,” says the long-time Rangers bench boss.
“I don’t like intra-squad games, and when I interviewed for the job, I made it quite clear that I didn’t want to watch these guys play against each other. It just seems from the past that no good comes of it, with regards to injury. And the pace of play isn’t where it needs to be, because guys simply have too much respect for each other. In a camp like this, you want emotion and you want physicality and I think in those red and white games it’s tough to manufacture that.”
The additional invitations became necessary when the National Hockey League lockout put the status of many eligible players in limbo. With negotiations ongoing (and no clear end in sight), Hockey Canada was forced to build in a cushion.
“This uncertainty could have a huge impact on our National Team. We’ve been told – and they’ve been up front with us – that if business resumes, they want access to their players. There are six or seven kids on this team that this could affect,” explains Spott.
It’s something that Team Canada has closely monitored over the past few months, and with the tournament just weeks away, Coach confesses it’s a less than ideal situation for their roster.
“It’s real frustrating. But I learned a long time ago… I used to get stressed over things like this. But I can’t lose sleep over this situation, because it’s not like it was a decision that I made. It’s a part of the business and you learn to accept it over time.”
With players arriving at Canada Olympic Park on Monday, there are some tough decisions ahead for the Team Canada staff. They’ve had a good look at many of these players, whether in this summer’s Canada-Russia Challenge, the CHL’s Subway Super Series or, in the case of Edmonton Oilers forward Ryan Nugent Hopkins, in the pro ranks. But Spott will tell you that it was an effort just to narrow it down to 37.
“It’s like wedding invitations: at some point you have to cut it off. There are so many friends who could come to a wedding and there are so many players in our country, but ultimately, you have to get to 23,” laughs the Toronto native, adding that he’s comfortable with the group assembled by Head Scout Kevin Prendergast and the rest of the Hockey Canada brass.
“It comes down to role identification: you can only have so many goal scorers, you can only have so many gritty players and checkers, and offensive defencemen and shut-down defencemen. We think we’ve captured the essence of all of those, but we could build this camp to 40 or 50 guys. We just didn’t want to do that because we had the evaluation this summer and we’ve got a good book on those guys. We know exactly what we are dealing with.”
He has one very familiar face joining him on the ice in Calgary. Rangers captain Ryan Murphy is auditioning for the National Team, and Spott is hopeful that he’ll crack the roster this year. But he scoffs at the idea that there will be any special treatment for the Kitchener rearguard.
“I think Ryan brings something that is unique. He has the ability, on an Olympic-sized ice surface, to really dismantle a team’s forecheck with how elusive he is, how evasive he is,” shares Spott.
“Ryan needs to show that he can play defensively, that he can be responsible with the puck in our end, but ultimately he needs to play his game. I think that having me there will help him, but really, I think after last year he feels guilty that he didn’t do that, that he changed his game for a week and ultimately it bit him in the backside.”
Spott knows that competition ahead is tough and that the expectations are high, as Canada looks to end a drought of three years without a gold medal. When the tournament opens on Boxing Day in Ufa, Russia, he says the team will be ready for a fight.
“It’s not our divine right to win gold medals – those days are done. When you look at the best players in the NHL, they’re not all born in Canada. But at the same time, we fully appreciate the mandate, and it is not to get on the podium. I want to win a gold medal. And I can speak for all 23 guys that we decide to take – they want the same thing. Anything else will be a disappointment.”