Craig MacTavish. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Gene J. Puskar/ file)
Canada's team at the Spengler Cup has been together for two days of practice plus one big Christmas party for players, coaches, staff and their families.
Next on the to-do list? Go win gold at the world's oldest professional international hockey tournament. Ready or not, a thrown-together national team made up of European-based players begins its annual quest for a championship Saturday when it meets Czech side HC Energie Karlovy Vary.
Like always at this event, the Canadians will have to overcome a lack of familiarity with one another and a dearth of preparation time in order to succeed, and the first game is always a telling one.
"That's when we open the package and see what's inside," head coach Craig MacTavish quipped Friday during a break in the team's Christmas party. "The players have been very diligent in terms of their preparation and we've had a couple of days of practice.
"It's a little unusual to play meaningful games on a couple days of practice but I think they'll be fine."
Canada often is at the tournament which dates back to 1923 and is hosted by Swiss club HC Davos. The Canadians have won it 11 times since first participating in 1984. Most recently they claimed the title in 2007, but lost 5-3 in the final to Moscow Dynamo last year.
That's why MacTavish has little issue with people back home expecting his club to win gold. Teams in the past have a good track record of success and there's no reason for his players not to win.
"I think that's inherent with Canadian hockey, every time you put the jersey on there are a lot of expectations, not the least of which is that you're going to win the tournament," he said. "But I think that's healthy, it's a good motivation for all these players and this year being an Olympic hockey season, it's a great year to really highlight Canadian hockey.
"We want to have a good start for Canada and Canadian hockey."
With the world junior hockey championship being hosted in Saskatchewan and the Olympics in Vancouver, Hockey Canada will be more than happy to build on any positive karma from the Spengler Cup team.
Aside HC Davos and HC Energie Karlovy Vary, the Canadians are also up against Adler Mannheim of Germany and HC Dynamo Minsk of Belarus.
There are lots of familiar names on the Canadian roster, including 1993 first overall pick Alexandre Daigle, who now plays for Langnau in Switzerland.
David LeNeveu and Wade Dubielewicz, who will share duties in goal, defencemen Yannick Tremblay and Jamie Rivers and forwards Mark Bell, Brett McLean and Josh Holden are other former NHLers of note on the club.
Serge Aubin is the team captain with Shawn Heins and Jean-Pierre Vigier as the alternates.
MacTavish feels the chance to see players who have slipped away from the NHL fishbowl is part of the Spengler Cup's charm.
"I always used to think the tournament was really neat, because you see a lot of players you've kind of lost touch with a little bit. Then you turn on the Spengler Cup and see that they're alive and well over in Europe," he said.
"Serge Aubin, I've always been a big admirer of his, he's going to be our captain, he's just a terrific person. Mark Bell, I'm anxious to see him play, J.P. Vigier, Jamie Rivers, I played with him in St. Louis ... there's just a cast of characters over here."
MacTavish is an active participant in the Spengler Cup for the first time although he'll draw on past experiences with the Canadian national team at the Lotto Cup in Slovakia and a world championship in Austria.
The former Edmonton Oilers defenceman and head coach knows that given how little time his players have had to prepare, he can't complicate things too much.
"That's exactly it, just try to play a simple system that everybody is pretty familiar with," he said. "And you just try to build and get better as each game goes by, that's our objective."
Fun also needs to be a part of it, as asking players to interrupt their holidays for the Dec. 26-31 tournament isn't easy.
That's why Friday's Christmas party, which included about 150 people in total and a visit from Santa for the kids, is a key part of the experience.
"It's valuable time to ask the players and the families to commit themselves at this time of year, so you want to show them a good time and Hockey Canada does that in spades every year," said MacTavish. "It's a good bonding exercise for the players and their families, just a great scene here."