x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Pressure is on for Olympic hopefuls

It is August?so surely the Winter Olympics are first and foremost on everyone's mind.

It is August?so surely the Winter Olympics are first and foremost on everyone's mind. At least that is the case in hockey-mad Canada, where the pleasures of summer have been passed over in favour of perpetual puck. Under the watchful eyes of Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman - an Olympic gold medallist in 2002 - and head coach Mike Babcock, among others, 46 of the country's top players have gathered for a mini-orientation camp in Calgary.

While Yzerman insists players will be able to earn their way on to the Olympic squad with a good showing in the first half of the NHL season, the reality is if you have not been invited to the four-day get-together, which began yesterday, you will likely be watching the Vancouver Games on television. So star centres such as Marc Savard and Brad Richards, who did not get the call - surely due to Canada's over abundance at the position - should probably start looking for tickets if they want to get into the rink in February.

Centre Jason Spezza, who was on the taxi squad as a 22-year-old in 2006, avoided an embarrassing non-invite this time around when he was asked to be a late replacement for Ryan Getzlaf, who is recovering from abdominal surgery. Spezza acknowledged that attending the August camp and learning the "systems" was a huge advantage. Nevertheless, being invited to the camp and making Canada's Olympic team are two different concepts.

The final roster will consist of 23 players: probably 13 forwards (25 were invited to the camp), eight defencemen (16 are in Calgary) and two goaltenders. For an illustration of Canada's strength, look no further than the crease, where the five invitees battling for the starting and back-up jobs include three-time Olympian Martin Brodeur, 2006 participant Roberto Luongo, Stanley Cup champions Marc-Andre Fleury (last June) and Cam Ward (2006), and NHL rookie-of-the-year Steve Mason. Ward and Mason are the long shots, with Fleury and Luongo looking to push aside Brodeur.

While five blueliners - Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Jay Bouwmeester, Dan Boyle and Robyn Regehr - have the inside track with previous Olympic experience, the likes of Dion Phaneuf, Shea Weber, Brent Burns, Mike Green, Dan Hamhuis, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook all appear ready, willing and able. Marc Staal (22) and Drew Doughty (19) are also at camp, but might be forced to wait until 2014 due to their youth. Pity Canada's coaching staff - it is conceivable they could cut the three defencemen who, at the end of the NHL season, are the top three candidates for the Norris Trophy. Up front, there are 11 forwards who played in the 2006 Games, plus Sidney Crosby. Easy choice, then, right? Just go with that dozen, and maybe throw in Jonathan Toews or Mike Richards for youth's sake. Except, that means the likes of Getzlaf, Jeff Carter, Brenden Morrow, Corey Perry and Jordan Staal would be left on the outside.

So, while Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, Rick Nash, Dany Heatley, Eric Staal and Joe Thornton are likely to don Canada's colours, veteran forwards such as Shane Doan, Simon Gagne, Martin St-Louis and Ryan Smyth will have to prove themselves once again. And for good measure, Spezza, Patrick Marleau, Derek Roy, Andy McDonald, Patrick Sharp, Milan Lucic and Dan Cleary are also in the mix. While the pressure will be intense in Calgary, it will not compare to what Canada face in February. The gold-medal anticipation, the expectations of the home crowd - and the machinations of the Russian offence - will converge to provide obstacles of Olympian proportions. As it should be.

@Email:smccaig@thenational.ae