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HELENE ELLIOTT / ON THE NHL

Steve Yzerman is backed against the boards

Former Detroit Red Wings star is executive director of the Canadian Olympic hockey men's team, which can be a blessing or a curse in a nation with high expectations for the Vancouver Games.

November 24, 2009|Helene Elliott
  • Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman has a big task as executive director for Canada's Olympic hockey team -- pick from among the biggest talent pool to form a team expected to win a gold medal at the Vancouver Games next year.
Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman has a big task as executive director for Canada's… (Richard Lam / Associated…)

Steve Yzerman has the best and worst job in sports.

Yzerman, executive director of the Canadian Olympic men's hockey team for the Vancouver Games, is blessed with the deepest talent pool but faces enormous pressure to win a medal in the sport that's a national obsession.

Yzerman spent most of last week in California scouting the Ducks, Kings and San Jose Sharks against the Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames, picking up nuances he can't get on TV.

"I think it helps to go out and see everybody live, see what they're doing, see what situations they're playing in," he said. "Like for instance, where they're playing on the power play, to get an idea of where guys are going to fit."

Olympic teams will start announcing rosters Dec. 23. Canada will announce its three goalies, seven defensemen and 13 forwards Dec. 31. The U.S. will be the last, on Jan. 1.

"We're kind of getting an idea of what the team is starting to look like," Yzerman said. "Have we decided on every player? Absolutely not. I think it's important we don't exclude or ignore certain players because a player could get injured and it would throw things right out of whack, so it's important that we're watching more than just 23."

The Ducks and Kings could be represented on eight teams: Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Finland, Russia, Latvia, Switzerland and Slovakia.

But it's host Canada that will face the highest expectations in a nation of coaches and critics.

"We understand there's going to be scrutiny. It's difficult to pick a team because we've got very good players to choose from," Yzerman said. "Other countries don't have a lot of players and it's difficult for them too, so this is all right."

He said he has seen Ducks right wing Corey Perry several times and was impressed.

"He's got very good hockey sense," Yzerman said. "Big guy, long reach, good hands."

Plus an agitator element.

"A little bit. He's toned it down a bit," Yzerman said. "He's too good a player to be in the penalty box. He certainly is a hard guy to play against."

Perry's center, Ryan Getzlaf, was projected as an automatic choice but had a slow start after hernia surgery in July. That probably won't hurt his Olympic chances.

"I've watched him out here and he's skating very well," Yzerman said. "I saw him in Detroit last week and he was outstanding in that game."

Defenseman Scott Niedermayer, who could be paired with former teammate Chris Pronger, "is skating as well as ever," Yzerman said. "He's a veteran, has played in the Olympics and has a lot of experience."

Two Kings were invited to Team Canada's orientation camp last summer but neither is a lock.

Ryan Smyth, nicknamed "Captain Canada" for wearing the "C" five times at the world championships, suffered an upper-body injury Nov. 16 and is expected to sit out a month. That puts him on the bubble.

"He's played very well to this point. I watched him a lot," Yzerman said. "Ryan was able to get healthy last year and had a very good year in Colorado. And he has a great start. I think he's reaffirmed he's still on top of his game and playing well.

"We'll have to see. He's in the mix with some other good players and some other players that are injured as well."

Drew Doughty ranks among the top-scoring defensemen with six goals and 20 points. But Yzerman said picking players who have played together and have a bond might be a good strategy because there will be only one practice before the Olympic tournament opens.

That's good for Chicago's Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Calgary's Jay Bouwmeester and Robyn Regehr, and Pronger and Niedermayer. Doughty, who will be 20 next month, doesn't have a partner of his caliber but might be too good to ignore.

"He definitely has a shot to make the team," Yzerman said. "He played very well at the world championships last year. He's playing a lot of minutes against the other team's best players and excelling. So we're watching him very closely.

"I really don't feel that age is an issue. He's a great player. We're going to take seven and we're going to leave off two or three that we'd love to take as well."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

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