At the 1976 Canada Cup tournament, a young Guy Lafleur was over the moon to learn that he’d been assigned to share a room with his idol Bobby Orr. Though they were rivals in the NHL, the two quickly hit it off and spent hours talking about the game, about winning, about getting the most out of their God-given talent. Lafleur later said the experience of playing with the legend whose poster hung in his locker changed his life.
Five years later, at the 1981 Canada Cup, Lafleur paid that debt forward by taking a young Wayne Gretzky under his wing. Six years after that, it was The Great One’s turn to challenge a rising star, to help him build a bridge from stardom to hockey immortality.
“I learned so much about how the great players work and conduct themselves,” Mario Lemieux said years later. “Remember, I was only 21 years old at the time. To be around guys like Wayne and Mark Messier and Paul Coffey, guys who’d already had so much success and had won Stanley Cups, was a tremendous learning experience. It gave me an opportunity to start my career and really learn what it meant to be a champion and the best in the game.”
That opportunity for one generation to pass along its wisdom to the next will present itself again next month in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Returning home with gold will be the primary goal of every player who heads to Sochi, but for young ones like P. K. Subban, John Tavares and Matt Duchene, the opportunity to study under a master for two weeks could wind up being more important to them and their careers than a medal that ends up in a drawer somewhere.
Granted, the circumstances aren’t nearly as favorable as they were in the past. In the summer of ’87, the Canadians spent a week living and training together in Banff, Alberta before heading out to the Maritimes to play a few exhibition games. The tight schedule of this year’s Olympic break won’t allow the same relaxed opportunities for players to bond, practice together, and study each other’s habits at the rinks and away from it.
Still, the Sochi tournament sets up as modern hockey’s ultimate hothouse environment, the ideal surroundings for a young player looking to gain important experience and soak up the lessons of his elders.
Imagine what Duchene, the dynamic but sometimes unfocused centerpiece of the young, promising Colorado Avalanche, could take away from time spent with a Selke Trophy-winning Stanley Cup champion like Jonathan Toews or Patrice Bergeron. Or what John Tavares, struggling to carry the rebuilding Islanders on his young shoulders, might learn about bearing the weight of great expectations from Sidney Crosby.
Or what someone might be able to do for P.K. Subban.
The Canadiens’ defender is easily the most intriguing project heading into this event, much like Lemieux was in ’87. True, Subban is a bit more advanced than Mario was at that point. He’s 24, not 21. He’s already won a Norris Trophy and been named a First Team All-Star. But there are obvious similarities between the two. There’s the unmatched game-breaking skill. The ability to physically dominate at will.
And there is the tendency for frustratingly uneven play that leaves fans (and coaches) wondering when, or if, that a-ha! moment will come.
Subban, like Lemieux in ’87, may already be a star in the NHL, but the consensus is there’s another level to his game that we haven’t yet seen. He could begin to find it in Sochi. He comes into the tournament as Canada’s seventh defenseman, seemingly doomed to a depth role by virtue of being a right-handed shot on the same team as Duncan Keith, Shea Weber and Alex Pietrangelo. But Drew Doughty was in a similar position four years ago in Vancouver, and he credits his time spent with Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer with giving him the confidence to step up and become a key player for Canada during the tournament and develop into one of the game’s top two-way defenders.
It could be that the chance to matriculate under two Cup winners and three potential Hall of Famers on Canada’s blueline could open the door for Subban’s own breakthrough.
He’s come a long way over the last year, cutting back on his meltdowns and the jarring miscues with the puck (if only slightly). But this is a player with a chance to be really special, the perfect hybrid of Scott Niedermayer and Chris Chelios, an effortless skater with the offensive chops to lead his team in scoring, while making life miserable for opposing forwards with a nasty, edgy defensive game. Like Lemieux, he can become a player who defines his era once he learns how to take that next step.
And in the great tradition of Canadian hockey, someone just needs to show him the way.