Kitchener Rangers General Manager and Head Coach Steve Spott is no stranger to hockey on the international stage: his coaching resume includes a turn as an Assistant Coach with the 2010 National Junior Team and a gold medal as the Head Coach of the summer Under-18 team at last August’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
But this week he is taking on a new challenge, grabbing the reins as Head Coach of the Canadian National Junior Team and heading east to Yaroslavl, Russia for the first two games of the 2012 Canada-Russia Challenge. The four-game series replaces Team Canada’s summer development camp and offers the coaches and staff an opportunity to watch 28 of the nation’s top junior aged players compete together.
With the first glimpse, however, comes a number of obstacles. Before boarding a flight from Toronto to Moscow (with stops along the way), Spott knew his team would have to work fast to acclimatize, not only to the eight-hour time difference, but also to the changes in culture, language, climate and food.
“There are a number of challenges that are going to come at us, but we’ve been pretty spoiled the last three years in this country, having played the World Juniors in Saskatoon, Buffalo and Calgary,” he said, adding “I think this is going to be great. It’s an example of why we send our players to Slovakia for the Under-18s, to prepare them for an event like this.”
While the players adjust to their new surroundings, however, they’ll have the help of Canada’s governing hockey body and its years of experience. Their coach is grateful for the care and preparation that was put into the Canada-Russia Challenge, confident that the planning behind the scenes will allow everyone on the ice to focus on the game.
“Hockey Canada is synonymous with details and the staff that they’ve assembled for us, the support staff – specifically the doctors, trainers and equipment players – are the best in the world. So for me, there’s the comfort of knowing that our players will be well looked after off the ice.”
The 2012 edition of the Canada-Russia Challenge is the latest chapter in a long-standing rivalry between two of the world’s greatest hockey nations. A celebration of the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Summit Series, this summer’s four-game set will take place against a new backdrop. Four decades ago, the battle between Canada and what was then the Soviet Union had implications that reached far beyond the rink, serving as a proxy battlefield for the political and ideological turmoil at the time.
These days the Cold War is limited to the ice: the 28 players who will pull on Team Canada jerseys this week have no recollection of the world as it was then. Not one was alive when the USSR dissolved in 1991, and Spott knows that for his team, the political tension that gripped the world exists only as a chapter in a text book. The importance of the on-going hockey rivalry is not lost on these young men – seven members of the Canadian team that fell to Russia in the semi-final round of the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championship have made the trip to Yaroslavl. But as their leader, Spott took it upon himself to read up on the Summit Series and ensures his team understands the legacy they have become part of. The players have been shown videos, are quizzed on their knowledge of the 1972 series and have heard from some of the legendary members of the original Team Canada, including Ron Ellis and Phil Esposito.
“I think Paul Henderson’s goal was one of the greatest in Canadian Hockey history,” Spott mused before his departure. “These guys have heard the stories from their parents, some of them from their grandparents, about Ellis and Henderson and Esposito and now they get to be part of that tradition”.
Just not all at the same time. Canada sent 28 players to Yaroslavl, including Rangers’ defenseman Ryan Murphy, meaning not everyone will play every night. Their coach understands that these players are used to putting in 30 minutes a game for their respective teams, and was ready for the challenge of juggling so much young talent.
“The key – and it’s no different as a coach – is to park your ego at the door. You come in and you do what you have to do to win for your country and our players will be given the same message: not everyone is going to play and when you’re not playing, get ready to go the next night.”
With that hurdle out the way, the Canadians must still take on a tough adversary. Russia’s National Junior Team is coming off a silver medal finish last year in Calgary and will feature the number one pick in June’s NHL Entry Draft, Nail Yakupov.
“We’re playing Russia. We know how gifted they are, but there’s no pre-scouting those guys, there’s no particular game plan or system that they have. They read and react and they play based on instinct,” noted Spott. “We’re going to have to be sharp and make sure we understand how they play and make sure that we’re ready to play a ‘Canadian’ game. We’re going to play hard, we’re going to be physical and obviously I think we have a great skill set with this group.”
The 2012 Canada-Russia Challenge begins on Thursday, August 9 with Game One from Yaroslavl. The opening game will be broadcast nationally on TSN2 beginning at 11:00am ET. For full schedule and broadcast details, visit Hockey Canada’s website.
For seven of Canada’s finest junior hockey players, the series is a chance for retribution after the disappointment of January’s semi-final loss. For the entire team and the nation they represent, it’s also a chance to play a part in one of hockey’s enduring traditions. But Coach Spott knows that while the extra push may help, the real drive to win starts with the red and white sweater.
“The jersey is a battery pack. It’s the same for coaches, putting on the Hockey Canada blazer. It’s motivation to go out and push yourself to do the best to represent your country.”