Canadian men's team takes shape at first practice

Get giddy, folks, the puck stars are out!

There is a crackle in the air—and it’s not just the malfunctioning electrical system at Canada Hockey Place.

Mike Babcock and his assistants ran the Canada’s star-studded men’s team through their first, brisk practice at the building Canuck fans know as GM Place, trying out lines and penalty-kill and power-play units in preparation for tomorrow night’s Olympic opener against Norway (luckily, an electrical glitch that causes lights to go on and off is restricted to non-essential areas of the inner concourse; like where the media works).

The big winner so far? Patrice Bergeron, the 24-year-old centre from the Boston Bruins, who found himself on a line with Sidney Crosby and Rick Nash, rounding out what will surely be one of the top lines in the tournament. Here’s a guy who wasn’t even invited to the orientation camp last summer. Who has missed 80 regular season games in the past two seasons due to injuries, including a nasty concussion. Who in large measure has flown under the media radar despite his star-status back home in Quebec.

Now he’s paired with arguably the best, and certainly the most complete, hockey player in the world in Crosby.

Bergeron took the compliment in stride, noting the two once played on the same line at the world junior championships.

“It seems like we find each other well on the ice, and the chemistry has been pretty good from the get-go,” he said. “You just try to get open and he usually finds you. He’s so well positioned on the ice. I’ve been saying all along that  just [being on the team] is an honour. Being on a line with Sid and Rick is amazing.”

Steve Yzerman, the team’s executive director, has been high on Bergeron since watching a few Bruins games in mid-season. He noticed the forward’s determination to win individual battles, and his capacity to carry his team through entire periods.

Canadian coach Mike Babcock agreed—with the caveat that the lines could change after the team plays its second game on Thursday against Switzerland.

Bergeron, he remarked, “is so responsible without the puck, and such a good face-off guy. I thought maybe that would free up Sid a little bit more.”

Bergeron’s luck comes at the expense of Jarome Iginla, who played alongside Crosby at the summer camp with so-so results. But Iginla looked comfortable on a line with with Mike Richards, a spark-plug centre with Philadelphia, and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks (veteran Brenden Morrow alternated with Toews).

“We’re going to be a line called on to be physical, to bring energy, to be a hard line to play against,” said Iginla, who expected the change. “I’d already talked to [Babcock] about what the line combinations would be and what would be expected of us. The summer was, what, a couple of days, a couple of practices. So I hadn’t pencilled myself in there by any means.”

However the lines shake out, the roster Yzerman announced on Dec. 30 has arrived at the tournament intact. Ryan Getzlaf, the talented and punishing centre with the Anaheim Ducks, overcame a high ankle sprain to rack up four points yesterday in a game against the Edmonton Oilers. Today at practice, he stopped, started, and turned with ease, satisfying Babcock and the training staff (Jeff Carter, the replacement player Hockey Canada flew in from Philly, was sent home with a gracious thanks; as of today, teams can’t change their rosters even in the event of injury).

Babcock also revealed that Roberto Luongo, the goaltender for the hometown Canucks, will start against Norway, while the veteran Martin Brodeur will play the game against Switzerland. That makes Marc-André Fleury the No. 3, meaning he’ll see little if any action. But who knows—lots can happen in an Olympic tournament.

Not surprisingly, the arrival of the NHL stars has sent a buzz through town. Cops, cooks, security guards, Olympic volunteers and reporters from around the world took in Canada’s perfunctory line drills, watching the combinations and comparing notes.

So did two members of the Russian team, Andrei Markov and Semyen Varlamov, scouting a possible opponent in a potential gold-medal game.

Getting ahead of ourselves? Maybe. But as Babcock himself said following the practice without the slightest hint of irony: “I think this could be the best hockey event of all time.”