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Sochi Olympics: Getting The Band Back Together

Toews and Sharp, one of the NHLs most potent sets of ice-brothers, to be reunited in Sochi for Team Canada?

It looks the guys who run the Canadian Olympic Men's Hockey team are going to try and get the band back together. Or, at least, they're going to make sure Elwood and Jake are together, to carry on with the Blues Brothers analogy. 

In a significant and very wise departure from last year's team, this year's invitee roster of forwards contains a lot of ice-brothers, if you will, players who play together on their NHL teams and have an existing chemistry. Some of them, Sharp and Toews, Crosby and Kunitz, Getzlaf and Perry, Marchand and Bergeron, Eberle and Hall, Stamkos and St. Louis are amongst the best and most potent pairs in the NHL, if not in all of hockeydom.

In the movie, Jake and Elwood go on a self-described mission from God, get their band back together and proceed to save the orphanage of their childhood from tax repossession. It involves nuns, fast cars, a blues band, frustrated cops and some funky music. There's a way (not to worry, I am not going to do it) to twist all of that into a comparison of the Olympic team - but really only one of those counts: Jake and Elwood knew each other like brothers do. A large part of the cult success of the movie revolves around the pair of them defying odds, making determined, sometimes tunnel vision moves based on their trust in one another and, through sheer determination and a shared agenda, getting the job done. Yes, they evaded the cops, played the concert and saved the orphanage.

In the 2010 Olympics Crosby was the only Penguin, Toews the only Blackhawk, Bergeron the only Bruin and Eric Staal the only Hurricane. Aside from Marleau, Heatly and Thornton, all of San Jose at the time, and Getzlaf and Perry of Anaheim, there were no ice brothers on the team. It was as full of superstars and captains as a team could be, so loaded with talent that it inspired a sort of awe amongst fans, commentators and opponents alike. In the words of Donald "Duck" Dunn, a character in the Blues Brothers movie, "We had a band powerful enough to turn goat piss into gasoline."

And so they did. They won gold. But let's not forget how that happened. How Canada lost to the USA in the opening round, barely beat Switzerland in a shoot out and eked by Slovakia by a single goal to earn a spot in the gold medal game. Then they beat the American team, the team who had beat them 5-3 in the opening round. No, it was not an uncontested march to the gold. It was hard fought, hard won, and truthfully, could have gone either way as sudden death games do. 

Canada won gold, but it was not a cake walk. In fact, the team did not perform to the overwhelming expectation placed on it by the sporting world, the players wearing the Maple Leaf or the citizens of the country they represented, if you believe all the news that was being churned out during the darker periods in the middle of the tournament. That is not a slur on the team: they did win the gold. But it should have served as a cautionary tale to those in charge. Paper tigers are easily burned and they can crumple like ... well, like paper, under pressure.

They didn't burn or crumple but there were more heated contests and more wrinkles in the paper than anyone expected. It can be considered, in my opinion, a coaching success, of the legendary kind, that the team won gold.

It is an unwise course to rely on individual superstars to play a team sport effectively. In some ways, the gold medal was won despite the team chemistry and not because of the team chemistry. Yzerman and Babcock are two crafty fellows and it looks like they're playing closer to the philosophy Babcock talks about in his book, "Leave No Doubt: A Credo for Chasing Your Dreams" (a great read if you're into inspirational tales) and leaving no doubt this time. Or less. Or maybe the right way to say that is they're leaving as little doubt as is possible.

I applaud this move with both hands and both feet.

If You Can't Get the WHOLE Band Back Together ...

While the final roster is not set and more pieces might be added and some will have to be removed to stay within the roster limit (about half, to be more precise), the step is one in the right direction. Crosby will play better with Kunitz or Neal and Toews will play better with Sharp and Bergeron will play better with Marchand or Lucic. And so on. They don't have to guess or struggle through a learning curve. The hard work has already been done. The chemistry is set. Every Lone Ranger has his Tonto. Every Jake, his Elwood.

Is Chris Kunitz the best left winger the country has? Maybe not as a piece of hardware on a shelf. But when packaged with Crosby he is and I can wave the stats around to prove it. And James "The Real Deal" Neal, another left winger sometimes in the mix for Crosby, is on the preliminary roster, too.  Is Martin St. Louis' age a factor? Maybe on paper, but he and Steven Stamkos are a proper killer tandem with the trophies and awards to prove it. Sharp and Toews? As good as it gets. Perry and Getzlaf need no introduction to the hockey faithful. Eberle and Hall are two of the most exciting wing pairs to play the game and young though they might be, they have the magic. Even without Nugent-Hopkins, one presumes they can still bring their chemistry to the ice with a different top tier centerman between them. The superstars are better with their sidekicks, or in the pairings they have spent time and energy perfecting. It's just a fact.

Other paired players have seen time together on their teams, if not on a line on a special team, such as Couture and Thornton of San Jose. Others such as Richards and Carter of Los Angeles do not play together often, both being centers of an entirely different breed, but they have the advantage of knowing a shared system and one of them might get slotted into a wing position. My ideas on putting centermen on the wing to deal with the glut up the center and an unwillingness to lose any of the highly skilled centers is another matter which I am sure I will go on about at another time.

The work now is executive in nature, and I mean that in the cognitive processes sense. This is where coaching and general management make their mark. Which of those ice-brothers can they keep together? Which pieces work the best with the most other pieces? Obviously the whole band, PLUS the back up singers and the extra rhythm section can't fit on the bus ... so it will come down to which members are the most crucial to keeping the signature sound intact.  Which players, when combined together, can make the best sustained impact and, more importantly, work like a unified team?  The hardest part of the Olympics, maybe, doesn't happen on the ice, maybe its deciding who goes on the ice. Working with a surplus of riches may be harder than working with a deficit of them. How do you leave a Steven Stamkos or a Ryan Getzlaf off a national team? 

But this burgeoning situation of bringing in player partners, if it gels into a final roster that allows for the best mix of standalone and unit talent, will make this Olympic team one of the most exciting and dangerous ever to be assembled. By anyone. Anywhere. At any time.

Let the games begin.

Or as Elwood might say, "Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration, don't fail me now." It might not be a mission from God, per se, but in Canada the Hockey Gods are prayed to, maybe more than any other deity. Maybe, out of respect, we can't actually borrow Jake's phrase, but we can point to it and smile.