As Rangers head coach and general manager Steve Spott made his way around Sportsworld Arena during this weekend's Spring Camp, someone stopped him every few feet to offer their heartfelt congratulations on his new gig.
On Friday, Hockey Canada announced that Kitchener's bench boss will serve as head coach of the National Junior Team at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia. Spott ranked the appointment as one of the highest honours of his career and he joked that it made a great gift for his birthday, which he also celebrated on Friday.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of great experiences as a coach but this is definitely near the top. I couldn’t be happier or more thankful to Hockey Canada for this opportunity. It’s a special feeling – I think anytime that you have an opportunity to represent your country whether it’s as a player or as a coach it’s an honour.”
It won't be his first turn in the red and white: his international coaching resume includes a trip as an assistant coach with the 2010 National Junior Team and a gold medal as a head coach at last summer’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial U-18 Tournament. Spott says he's planning to draw from those experiences and the wealth of knowledge shared by Canada's top coaches.
“Working with Willie Desjardins in 2010 in Saskatoon was great - seeing how he and Dave Cameron dealt with different situations. And working with the Under-18 team, too, sharing expectations and sharing ideas with different coaches. The great thing about Team Canada and the Program of Excellence is guys aren’t afraid to share. You can call Ken Hitchcock, Mike Babcock, Brent Sutter – these guys are willing to share information because we’re going after a common goal and that is winning gold medals for our country.”
And make no mistake – the mission is always to top the podium. The World Juniors have become a Christmas break tradition across the country and while Canada has medaled in 14 consecutive tournaments, fans are waiting to hear our national anthem when this year's golds are handed out.
“I think there’s an expectation every time we field a team, as Team Canada,” explains Spott. “There’s an expectation of winning gold and there is an amount of pressure that’s put on the coaches and obviously the players. But you want that pressure. It’s no different than coaching the Rangers – the expectation every Friday night is to win.”
In addition to being familiar with the job and the scrutiny it brings, Spott is also well-acquainted with the rest of the coaching staff. He and assistant Andre Tourigny have worked together at both the Under- 18 and World Junior level, while Mario Duhamel and Don Nachbaur were both part of the Under-18 gold medal team last summer. As a head coach, he’s grateful to Hockey Canada for the group they’ve assembled with the common goal of bringing home a gold.
“For me, the transition with the staff is going to be very easy because we’ve all worked together. They know my personality, I know theirs. I know their strengths and weaknesses and they know mine. It’s a huge part of the chemistry. I excited to know that I don’t have to build a relationship with somebody I don’t know. There’s a familiarity with each of them.”
Hockey Canada will have their pick of some of the top players in the world in this age group when building a team for Ufa, but Coach concedes that the incredible depth at every position can make a difficult job even more challenging. With so much talent to choose from, Spott sees the blueline as an area where picking skaters will require a lot of thought.
“It’s going to be tough picking seven or eight defensemen, I can tell you that. We have a wealth of talent on the back end. And the NHL is going to play a role in that – if you look at some of the returning players who are eligible to come back, where do those players fit in?”
That is an important question that may affect one of the Rangers' star rearguards. Ryan Murphy has twice traveled to camp to try out for the team, but his coach can't count on him being available.
“Obviously we have Murphy, who fits in as a potential player for us but where does he fit in with the Carolina Hurricanes? There are a lot of different balls in the air, and ultimately, the wealth of talent we have makes it tough but those are the decisions that come with coaching at this level.”
Even if Murphy doesn't make the trip to Russia, there may be some familiar faces for Spott. Three Rangers played for their home countries last Christmas: import forwards Tobias Rieder (Germany) and Radek Faksa (Czech Republic) and American netminder John Gibson may lace up for their national teams again this year. Asked about the likelihood of encountering his players as opponents, Spott smiled and said it comes with the territory.
“That’s what makes these things fun. We’ll be able to have some fun earlier in the year – it’s part of what makes these events great. But ultimately, once we all put on our country’s sweaters, I think we all understand that the gloves are off at that point.”