On Monday night, players from Canada’s junior team were in the stands at the Metro Centre in Halifax for Finland's 2-2 tie with the Czech Republic. One of the favored past-times of hockey players is, of course, watching others play, and this game was a must-see for the Canadians because their opponent in the final game of the opening round was going to be the Finns on New Year's Eve.
On Monday night, head coach Mark Habscheid and assistant Mike Kelly were also in attendance, but for them this was not recreation but rather preparation. Their interest was not casual but rather clinical. Canadian head coach Mark Habscheid called advance scouting "the homework" that is part of the coaches' lot at this tournament.
Meanwhile assistant coach Mario Durocher was several hundred kilometres away in Sydney, winding up his advance work on the teams in Group A that Canada could face in cross-over play in the elimination round that begins on January 2 in Halifax.
"Homework" is a fitting description: Toil that goes largely unseen but is necessary for passing on-ice tests. When the coaches are not on the ice with the players at practice or behind the bench during games, they’re either doing advance scouting at games, reviewing videotape of upcoming opponents, or meeting to discuss strategy. The world junior tournament is an intense couple of weeks for the players but maybe even more so for the coaches.
Habscheid and Kelly, like every player on their team, got an eyeful of goaltender Kari Lehtonen, who turned aside 33 of the Czechs' 35 shots, many of them in spectacular fashion. But they also had a chance to see a Czech team that managed to more than hold its own against Finland which has two wins and a tie against Canada in the last two world junior tournaments.
"Advance scouting is equally important to coaches and players," said Habscheid. "For the coaches, it's important in terms of our bench management. If we can know which players our opponents like to use in certain situations, then we can respond with players we'd like to have out there in certain situations. We can try to negate their strengths. For the players, you'd like to have it that there are no surprises."
Habscheid said that, in general, there are many suprises.
"When you have the same coaches from tournament to tournament, from year to year, you see a lot of constants in the approach to the game," he said. "And there are just certain types of games and strategies that are constants with national teams and national programs even when the coaches change. For instance, when we play the Finns, we can anticipate a harder forecheck and more physical game than we might see from other European teams. We know that going in every time. Some other details might change, but there are some things that are always going to be true."
While the coaches try to be mindful of all the information gathered by scouting, it's a much condensed version that they impart to the players.
"If you try to tell the players too many things, they can't really process all them,".said Mike Kelly, who is working as an assistant coach at his third consecutive world junior tournament for Canada. "If it's a long list, it might end up being more of a detriment than a benefit. We might have four pages of notes but we might bring it down to only a couple of points."
Kelly's scouting for the Canadian team in Halifax started months back in tournament play in Europe. "They
didn't have all the players available [in that tournament] that they'll have at the world juniors," Kelly
said. "Some of their top players didn't have their releases from their Finnish league teams. The roster was
significantly different and the skill level was not as high as we're bound to see here."
That might make it seem like Kelly had gone on something of a wild goose chase. What could be learned from scouting a Finnish national junior team minus some of their top players? Plenty, Kelly maintains.
"Even without those players, you can get an idea of what [the Finns'] like to do," he said. "What has been interesting is the fact that the coaching tendencies have been the same, the systems have been the same even though the players have changed. We can go to players and say this is the type of forecheck we can expect, this type of penalty kill and powerplay. We've had a couple of good looks at the Finns here in Halifax and really there have been a lot of constants carried over not just from play in earlier tournaments this season but from what we've seen from the Finns the last couple of world junior tournaments and what they've done in tournament play at other levels."
Kelly said that whatever advantages can be gained from advance scouting, they come at potential risk. "Every time you make a change in your game, you shuffle your players' confidence level," he said. "At some point you have to let the other team worry about you. It's about checks and balances."
Canadian team captain Scottie Upshall said that advance scouting of opponents is "important " but added that ultimately it's "more important that we are able to dictate and play our game (and) not just try to react (to) or counter" what the other team is doing.
Upshall suggested that the time he and his teammates spent in the stands for the Finland-Czech Republic game wasn't just a night out. "We know as players what certain teams like to do and we know something about their best players," Upshall said. "We look for things too. The coaches will tell us two or three things about our opponents to look for leading into any game. But in a lot of ways we approach every game in the same way. It should be about us, not them."