Yesterday I saw some of the candidates for Team Canada in the upcoming Olympics give interviews about their experience at the orientation camp in Calgary this week. The one thing they all mentioned, smiling through gasping breaths, was the speed at which Mike Babcock organizes practices. The players said they hit the ice at top speed from the first moment and never let up until they got off the ice. One of the other coaches...Lindy Ruff, I think...commented that "that's the only speed Mike knows." Babcock himself said if you want to be competitive with the best, you have to be in top condition.
It reminds me of all the stories you hear about the great '70s dynasty Habs teams. I've mentioned here before that I spoke with several members of the 1977 Canadiens a couple of years ago, while I was working on a 30th-anniversary retrospective of what I believe is the greatest hockey team ever assembled. The players from that team, even decades later, still have several things in common. One of them is the rueful memory of the way Scotty Bowman ran practices...at top speed. Here's what Rick Chartraw told me back then:
"I remember a funny story one time. I think it may have been a playoff game. It was the morning skate and we were playing Boston that night, and Boston was in town. We skated in the morning at ten o'clock and the other team would go on the ice at eleven o'clock for a warm up. Gerry Cheevers was sitting on the visitor's side of the rink at the Forum, watching us go through our morning skate. We had Kenny in one net and Bunny in the other. And the guys were just ripping shots at every corner, over shoulders, between legs, not taking anything off of them. And Gerry Cheevers...I was standing next to the boards...said, "The way you guys abuse your goaltenders, I'm gonna be sick." And we didn't think we were abusing them, and our goaltenders didn't either. It was their job to be challenged whether it was in practice or in games, to the nth degree. It was the way we did things. We did things at full throttle, whether it was practice or games. I think that's what made the games, for us...not easy...but easy to play at that level because we just always played at that level, whether it was practice or games."
Bowman did it and won. Babcock studied under Bowman, he does it and wins. Jacques Martin has the speed weapon in his arsenal and, as we know, it can be a very deadly weapon indeed. But if he's going to take best advantage of it, he's got to be like Babcock and Bowman and keep the team moving at full throttle every single time they're on the ice. The only way a team can effectively pass, make plays and shoot at top speed is if it does it every day at practice until it becomes automatic.
In the last couple of seasons, I've had a chance to sit in on a couple of Habs practices. The thing that stood out for me both times (aside from Plekanec being first on the ice and last off on both occasions) was the great amount of time the players spent standing around. They ran some drills, but there were long stretches while some players were involved and others were just watching. I don't remember any stretch in which all the players were running at full speed for a sustained period. The lack of speed in practice actually surprised me because I remembered reading in Larry Robinson's book about how the team, including Guy Carbonneau, was bitterly opposed to Bob Berry's coaching in the early '80s, in large part because of the slow, boring practices he ran. The holdovers from the '70s had been taught practices mirror a team's game performance and slow practices would lead to slow games. Judging by the games we watched last year, with the speedsters looking like they were skating in mud and all the missed passes, I'd say there's a deep truth in that theory.
Jacques Martin's got an exceptionally fast group of forwards (with a couple of notable exceptions in Laraque and Latendresse, but even Gui is picking it up) with an exceptional lack of height on his team right now. As they say, you can't hit what you can't catch, and if the Canadiens are flying at top speed, they're going to be very, very hard to catch. It's up to the coach to make that happen. And if Martin's smart, which I think he is, that'll start with some upbeat, dedicated practices. If speed is to be the weapon of choice, it's best to have it primed and ready at all times. No more standing around, Jacques!