Talking Hockey With Johnny Misley

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    Johnny Misley is the Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations for Hockey Canada, and plays a key role in enhancing hockey in Canada across various levels: from the grassroots programmes all the way up to the National teams. It was very kind of Johnny to take a few minutes to discuss the programme’s aspirations in the upcoming World Junior Championship in Regina as well as the Men’s Olympic hockey tournament in Vancouver.

    Q – Johnny, appreciate you taking the time out of a very hectic schedule to do this.

    A – My pleasure Alex.

    Q – You’re obviously a tremendously busy person, especially at this time of year, so let’s dive right into this and start off with World Junior hockey. With Tavares, Duchene, O’Reilly and now Hodgson all unavailable for the tournament, what are your thoughts on the team’s potential lack of depth at the centre position?

    A – Well to be honest, it’s really not any different from any other years. The reality of the situation is that you’re going to lose players to the NHL every year and the continued success obviously gives great testimony to the depth and skill we have here in this country. Young players are just becoming so talented at an early age that they can make that successful transition to the NHL game sooner. From a managerial standpoint, the important thing is to focus on the team we currently have available to us, look for leadership out of the returning players we do have, and work to establish an identity.

    Q – One player who IS available for Team Canada this year is Nazem Kadri, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ 7th overall selection at last year’s draft. What can he potentially bring to the team this year? He certainly looked extremely confident and efficient leading the OHL’s powerplay and penalty kill units during the Subway series a few weeks back.

    A – Oh absolutely. Nazem is one of those high end skill players with phenomenal puck skills. We know he had an excellent training camp with the Maple Leaf in the fall, which I’m sure created quite a bit of buzz amongst Leaf fans. Unfortunately for Nazem, the injury he suffered last year kept him out of our invite camp, but he looks healthy and good to go this time around. This is not an easy team to make and like any other player, he’s going to have to compete real hard to get his shot. We’ve always emphasized the importance of two-way play and Nazem’s going to have to continue to display this if he wants to play for us. He is an outstanding player and it is my belief that he will be a staple in the Leafs’ NHL lineup sooner rather than later.

    Q – As you already mentioned, hockey seems to be quickly gravitating towards a young man’s game. Players such as Stamkos, Doughty, and Tavares are immediately making that jump to the NHL to become big-time impact players for their respective NHL clubs. Does this affect Hockey Canada’s personnel decisions when you know a lot of players will be going through the “one and done” route when it comes to serving for the World Junior team?

    A – Well, there are really only a small number of those rare, elite talents that can make that jump. Most players are going to be able to stick with the team through more than one tournament, but you’re certainly right. When the Collective Bargaining Agreement was put in place in ’05, the economic landscape of the game definitely changed. We’re seeing the growing importance of younger players in the NHL because of those cap issues, but it’s also due in part to the higher skill level and physical maturity of today’s eighteen and nineteen year olds. Of the eight or so eligible players in the NHL this year, we were fortunate enough to have on NHL team loan us their player (St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo) for this year’s tournament.

    Q – Taking a quick glance through the December camp roster, it looks like you guys have seven forwards under 6 feet tall. Is size up front going to be a concern this year?

    A – Well size is really one of those factors that will fluctuate on a year-to-year basis and it’s really not something we seek to control. Even on the backend, we lost a lot of size and skill in Tyler Myers who’s playing great with the Sabres right now. What is he… like ten feet tall? Ha ha. Last year, we seemed to ice a pretty big team, so again, it’s a dynamic that will change from year to year. When putting together the rosters, we like to stress the importance of speed and mobility from all positions, and this is what we look for first and foremost. We want our players to play with that extra edge and sandpaper, so this year’s squad will likely require some smaller players to play “big”.

    Q – It’s not often we get to say this, especially on home soil, but early indications are that you guys might actually be an underdog heading into Regina this year. The Russian and Swedish teams are poised to receive a lot of returning players, and the Russians in particular have such a dynamic forward core up front. Is this at all something you think about beforehand? And does Canada relish that role of being the underdog?

    A – Certainly like you said, it seems we might be a bit of an underdog heading into this year’s tournament. The Russians are very talented and have a lot of returning players, so they could indeed be the favourites. However, you can never count out the advantage of playing in Canada in front of our fans. They are like the 7th man out there. Even going to back to ’06 in Vancouver, when Brent Sutter led a very young squad with little experience to the Gold, the crowd was absolutely pivotal. The passion of the crowd fuels every ounce of emotion, commitment and physicality our players have! We are certainly expecting more of the same this year with those fantastic fans out in the prairies.

    Q – Going a little off topic here, but sticking with the topic of junior hockey: what are your thoughts on USA Hockey’s recent hiring of former NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly and their campaign to stop the bleeding of talent from the NCAA ranks into the CHL? Leaf prospect Kenny Ryan’s decision to leave Boston College to join the Windsor Spitfires certainly caused some controversy over the last little while.

    A – I think it’s a great move for the NCAA and USA Hockey. I have tremendous respect for Paul Kelly. He’s a great hockey mind and I imagine he’s going to come in there and do a good job of evaluating all the relevant issues to decide on the best course of action. He recently had a conference call with David Branch and Bob Nicholson to discuss this exact topic and the three will work together to decide what’s best for the players and what’s best for the league.

    Q – Alright, let’s switch gears a little bit here and talk about the Men’s Olympic team with the big tournament just around the corner. In your opinion, why hasn’t the success at every other level translated over to the Olympics?

    A – Well, the success might not have translated necessarily over to the Olympics, but it has translated well to senior hockey in general with strong showings at the World Hockey Championships for example. But we do understand that the Olympics is indeed the pinnacle of competitive hockey, and the Programme of Excellence we put in place in 1984 has allowed the nation to make great strides in that regard. Looking at our results before the programme was put in place, we can see a stark improvement over the past few tournaments.

    Q – Certainly it can be said that the results of the 2006 Olympics were a disappointing setback. Simply put, what do you think went wrong?

    A – I’ve been with the Olympic teams both in 2002 and 2006, and I don’t think you can really point fingers at any one thing. As a whole, everything was rushed and as result, there was less attention paid to detail. With the whole CBA issue with the NHL, we didn’t really even know which players would even play until about mid July. Once that was known, we had very little time to get the coaches together and run an orientation camp. So really, we had to rely for the most part on the World Cup roster to give us an idea of the lineup we’d be sending to the Olympics. Was it the right choice? Certainly it’s arguable. In the end, we barely had time for a couple quick practices and then we got rushed right into some fairly easy games early and then faced well prepared teams at the end of the round robin. We would meet up with the Russians in the quarter-finals and really just lost by a goal as they added an empty netter to seal it. That game marked a fine line in the results as the winner would move on to place in the #1-4 range, while the loser would fall to the #6-7 range. Looking back at it all, it’s safe to say that we were much more prepared in 2002, and this time around for 2010, we’re miles ahead of where we were preparation wise for either tournament.

    Q – When it comes to putting together that roster, is it tougher trying to find the right mix of bottom six forwards, especially when you’re picking from such a high profile group of star calibre players. I don’t imagine it’s all that easy asking a $6 million dollar franchise player to play an energy role.

    A – Roster wise, we decided to change up the “ghost roster template” of the way we put together teams prior to 2002. We’re now moving forward with r roster where we look for skill, speed and the ability of players to accept roles and play on both sides of the puck. This change in philosophy was really brought upon by Stan Butler with our National Junior Team Program and Wayne Gretzky with the 02 Olympic Team.  For example in 2002, we asked Yzerman to play more of a defensive role and chip in offensively where he could and he proved to be very effective for us.

    Q – Now you guys might not be able to pick from dozens of qualified NHL stars for much longer with news that the league may not allow players to participate in the 2014 Olympics.

    A – It would certainly be disappointing if that were the case. Olympic hockey is the pinnacle of athletics: having that opportunity to compete on the international stage. As a kid playing on the street or on your backyard pond, you dream of winning the Stanley Cup and you also dream of wearing your nation’s colours and earning your country that gold medal. It’s an absolute shame that we would be taking away half of those aspirations from these young men. There are no two greater honours for a hockey player than to play in the best league in the world and to represent his country on an international level.

    Q – If that does end up happening, then it just makes this year’s run all that more special and important. Playing in Vancouver… home ice advantage, but also a whole lot more added pressure. How do you go about dealing with it all?

    A – Hey, we’re Canada. There’s always a ton pressure and excitement no matter where or when we play. We thrive on pressure because pressure leads to expectations, and this is something we believe in at every level of our organization. It’s always been about the Gold and anything else is considered a failure. We’re very excited about playing in front of the home crowd in Vancouver… well not necessarily a home crowd because there will be a wealth of international fans as well, but certainly playing on home soil. This is what it’s all about.

    Q – Another advantage perhaps you guys might have going into this year’s tournament is that familiarity with the rink sizes. How does the international vs. North American ice factor into personnel decisions? Does it mean the team can shift away from the more fluid, speed style of game to a more physically demanding one? With names like Burns, Pronger, Regher, Weber, Bouwmeester and Staal amongst the list of possible candidates for the blueline, it looks like you guys are really stacking up size-wise back there.

    A – Really I think that the issue of playing on different ice surfaces is nowhere near as big an issue as it was a number of years ago. Thanks to the Programme of Excellence and the multitude of international tournaments, we get a lot of experience playing on European ice and vice versa. However, there will indeed be a few adjustments made from previous games. There will be less room and less time playing on the smaller ice, meaning more collisions and as such we have to anticipate for that. It also makes for a more entertaining, faster paced game for the fans as well. When it comes to the international game, when they took away the red line a few years back, they hoped it would create more room to move and create and consequently more offense. Unfortunately, teams and head coaches took this to mean that there was more real estate to defend and opted to play a more reserved style. In the end the whole venture proved to be rather counterproductive. But back to the original topic, I anticipate that when we announce the blueline on the 30th of December there will be a fair bit of size and toughness on the backend, but there will also be plenty of skill and puckmoving ability.

    Q – Another standout trait from this year’s crop of Olympic hopefuls is that they certainly appear to be a much younger group that that ’06 squad.  Is this about developing a core that can stay together for the next 2-3 Olympic runs?

    A – It’s really tough to think that long-term for something like this. You have to take it tournament by tournament and make assessments as you go along. This is about putting together the roster that we feel has the best chance to win here and now. If we’re impressed with how players perform, there will certainly be that opportunity to consider them again for the next run.

    Q – Alright, last question here! In addition to the young roster, Hockey Canada seems to be putting together a rather young management staff across various levels as well with Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier both in the fold for the Olympics and World Hockey Championships respectively. Did Hockey Canada specifically target individuals who had just recently left the game and would still maintain those ties?

    A – Well, it’s really not all that recent. They’ve been out for about 4-5 years now and have had plenty of time to absorb an understanding of the workings of the executive level. The reason we targeted these individuals is because those are high profile positions where we need leadership, vision and most importantly, a sense of what it takes to win. From Gretzky to Yzerman and now Messier, these are decorated athletes both domestically and internationally. They possess an incredible sense of passion and desire to win, and this is a lethal combination. I’ve actually had the opportunity to spend a little bit of time with Mark going through some ideas and plans for the future and he is a brilliant hockey mind.

    Q – Fantastic. Well that’s it for me Johnny. Appreciate the time. Best of luck to you guys.

    A – Thanks Alex.

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    Note: Friend’s got tickets to the Coyotes game tomorrow he’s looking to move at cost. Drop me an email if interested.

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