As the man most responsible for assembling Canada’s Olympic team, Steve Yzerman faces more pressure than any hockey executive in the world. And unless and until Canada wins a gold medal in Sochi, his selections for the team will be questioned and parsed and debated. It comes with the territory.
But it’s crystal clear by his choices that the one thing you cannot question about Steve Yzerman is his integrity. Yzerman and his management team picked the 25 players they believe give Canada its best chance to win a gold medal and that group did not include his own player, Martin St-Louis.
Talk about courage. It would have been very easy for Yzerman to overrule his management group and take St-Louis for the team. He could have easily justified it, saying that it was all about duos. After all, the team has Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo, who patrol the blueline together in St. Louis. It has Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. He could have easily pointed to the tandem of St-Louis and Steven Stamkos, who is expected to be ready to play for Canada.
But there were very real concerns among the group about what kind of impact St-Louis would have on the big ice in Sochi. St-Louis, you’ll remember, was a part of the disaster that was the Canadian team in Turin and there were doubts he would be able to contribute the way he does at the NHL level.
Yzerman did not have to listen. He could have taken his own player and compromised his management group. By not selecting St-Louis, he risks losing the player. Yzerman will be the executive director of Canada’s Olympic team for another two months, but he’ll be GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning for a long, long time. And you could tell the decision has weighed heavily on him.
“I’m hopeful that we can get through this and continue,” Yzerman said. “(St-Louis) is a guy who I want to finish his career (in Tampa) and I’m hopeful that somehow we can be fortunate enough to win a Stanley Cup. There’s not much I can say. I can’t apologize. We’ve got to make these decisions.”
Yzerman was cut twice from Canada Cup teams himself so he knows what it’s like to be an elite player in the NHL and be rejected by your country.
“To be perfectly honest, I was bitter. Extremely bitter,” Yzerman said. “It took a while to get over that, but you know what, it’s hard but we recover. I recovered from getting cut from Team Canada twice and in the ’96 World Cup I was virtually the 13th forward. But in 2002 I was on a gold medal team.”
At the age of the 38, St-Louis doesn’t have that kind of time. His legacy as an NHL player is secure, but would contributing to a gold medal Olympic team make him a lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame? Quite likely. So there is no minimizing the stones Yzerman had to have to make this decision.
But St-Louis was not his only difficult decision. Will the team be better off with Jeff Carter, Rick Nash, Kunitz and Patrick Marleau than it would have been with the likes of Joe Thornton, Claude Giroux, James Neal, St-Louis and Logan Couture? Well, the only way to find out is to drop the puck and see how this team does.
The problem is that depending on how this team does, Yzerman has either the best or the worst job in hockey. Having this many elite players can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing for Hockey Canada. There are countries in this tournament where the talent pool is very clear and straightforward and there is little or no controversy surrounding their decisions. But having this depth of talent often causes paralysis by overanalysis.
Consider what Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, a key member of the management committee, had to say about things they considered during the selection process: “We went through it all again (on Monday), who can slide over on defense, who can slide over and play the opposite side, who plays with whom, who’s on the power play, who can penalty kill? If we’re down by a goal with a minute to go, who’s on the ice? If we’re up by a goal with a minute to go, who’s going to be on the ice? If we’re having a draw in our own zone on the penalty kill, who’s going to be out there? We went through all those scenarios with (coach) Mike Babcock.”
Wow. That’s an awful lot to consider. And even more for Yzerman to digest as the man with the final say. St-Louis is the ultimate professional and it’s unlikely he’ll hold this against his GM, but Yzerman must have considered somewhere along the line the ramifications of leaving him off the team. Too often in this game people make decisions based on putting their interests ahead of the collective good. Yzerman could have done that and guaranteed never losing the allegiance of his star player. But instead he listened to his coaches, swallowed hard and made a difficult, cold-blooded decision.
And for that he should be applauded.