TORONTO — At this point in his career, given all the games he’s played and all the big stages that Jonathan Toews has been on, Patrick Kane doesn’t believe he has a whole lot of fresh insight for his American teammates about his Blackhawks teammate.
“I think everyone pretty much knows how a guy like Tazer plays,” Kane said. “Hard on the puck, competes like no other, wins a lot of battles and he has the skill to go along with it.”
That said, if Kane knows some subtle tic in Toews’ game — a tendency, a preference, a vulnerability — you can be sure he has shared it with his Team USA teammates during this World Cup of Hockey. These guys make their names and their money in the NHL, but when you’re playing for your country, there is no proprietary information. Everything — and every one — is fair game.
So yes, Drew Doughty has been telling his Canadian teammates where to shoot on American goalie Jonathan Quick leading up to Tuesday’s big showdown between the rival nations. Toews will have some suggestions for getting past Niklas Hjalmarsson should Canada and Sweden meet in the final. And John Tavares will have no qualms about exposing Jaroslav Halak’s weaknesses on Wednesday when Canada plays Europe.
“I don’t think they’re going to hold back on anything on me,” a smirking Tavares said of his New York Islanders teammates. “I’m sure Jaro’s going to say things about me, so why should I hold back on him?”
It’s one of the interesting quirks of international competition. Rivals become teammates, and state secrets are inevitably spilled. From his time in Vancouver and Anaheim, Ryan Kesler is one of the most hated players in Blackhawks circles. But every two years, he’s teammates with Kane on Team USA, and the two are friends off the ice. There are strange bedfellows like that in every dressing room, and no state secret is too sensitive to share.
And so the players dish on their NHL teammates to their international teammates — this guy likes to go forehand-backhand on breakaways; this defenseman likes to double back and build a head of steam rather than dump and chase; this goalie is quicker going to his right than his left. Of course, in the modern age of scouting, most of this is common knowledge, anyway — especially among elite players. But there’s always a subtlety to point out, always a weakness to exploit.
“You play to win,” Tavares said. “We’re here to win and represent our country.”
Canada’s Ryan O’Reilly hasn’t held back, either — “It’s an elite tournament, and we need every advantage we can get,” he said. But he also noted that players aren’t too worried about any of the shared intel coming back to bite them during the NHL season. No matter how well you know an opponent, hockey’s natural flukiness and improvisation will always surprise you.
“It’s not like football, where everything is set plays,” said O’Reilly, a forward for the Buffalo Sabres. “It’s such an instinct-based game, and [there’s so much] decision-making and nuances of the game.”
There’s also plenty to learn simply by observing. Tavares still marvels about how cool and confident his Canadian teammates were in the 2014 Sochi Olympics during the second intermission of a tied quarterfinal against Latvia. Tavares was hurt earlier in the game (he missed the rest of the season with a knee injury), and Latvian goalie Kristers Gudvelskis was having one of the greatest nights in Olympic goaltending history, on his way to making 55 saves in an eventual 2-1 loss. But nobody in the Canadian dressing room was panicking, a sense of poise that Tavares — who at the time only had played in one playoff series in his NHL career — took with him back to New York.
“The confidence never wavered,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it was a tie game going into the third period. It was just impressive the way everyone handled it.”
So as much as anything, players enjoy getting a feel for what makes other players — and other teams — successful. The way guys warm up, the way they eat, the way they conduct themselves in practices. The way their teams and coaches handle a practice, a game day, a travel day. The dirt that’s dished isn’t so much about what happens on the ice, but rather off of it.
“I think that’s what piques a lot of guys’ curiosities, knowing what other teams do well and what their secrets and their formulas are for success,” Toews said. “And maybe bringing some of that back with you when you get back to your club team.”