LeBrun: Don Sweeney talks building Team Canada for 4 Nations and beyond

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LeBrun: Don Sweeney talks building Team Canada for 4 Nations and beyond

Don Sweeney’s lone Team Canada experience as a player was a beauty. Gold medal at the 1997 IIHF men’s worlds in Finland.

Which was a fitting way for us to begin our conversation Monday morning because of what he remembers so well from that event.

“Well, let me tell you, that’s a good jumping off place, because when Rob Blake and Chris Pronger and Mark Recchi walked through that door, they had one intention: win the gold medal, and get on the ’98 Olympic team,” Sweeney told The Athletic.

The Boston Bruins architect was named Team Canada’s general manager on Friday for the NHL’s best-on-best event next February.

And there’s no question as Sweeney and associate GM Jim Nill start the process of forming that 4 Nations roster, next month’s world championships in Czechia will have some bearing on that process.

And by the way, Blake, Recchi and Pronger all made Team Canada’s first-ever NHL-populated Olympic roster in 1998 at Nagano.

“And that was with full intention of why they went (to the worlds),” Sweeney reiterated. “They played in the ’98 Olympics and justifiably so, because they earned the right to be on that team.”

That was Sweeney’s lone Team Canada experience as a player because his Bruins almost always made the playoffs. He finally got his chance to play in the worlds in ’97 and cherishes that memory.

“It was my first opportunity to go,” said the New Brunswick native. “I was actually getting married that summer. My wife probably wasn’t that happy with me for going (laughs).

“But it was just a tremendous experience. It really was.”

And now he’s cherishing getting the nod from Team Canada Olympic GM Doug Armstrong to run the 4 Nations team with Nill.

“Well first and foremost, I’m really appreciative of Doug’s trust as well as the Hockey Canada executive committee,” Sweeney said. “I got an opportunity previously while we were preparing to go to the (2022) Olympics (in China) to be part of that management group and really, you’ve got to be like a sponge. You’ve got high-level people that have been around the game for a long time. You’re sharing things candidly. It’s very, very unique.

“Working with Jimmy Nill, we’re sort of steering the ship together in this regard, and Doug having supervision of it, wanting to be in every meeting because he’s got his eye towards a couple of years down the road trying to put together the best group he can (for the 2026 Olympics).”

Sweeney’s first official task as 4 Nations GM will be to name the first six roster players in June as per NHL rules for the event. On the surface, that doesn’t seem terribly hard — start with the best player in the world, Connor McDavid, and go from there. But then again, it’s Canada, and people will no doubt still be curious and debate all six players no matter how obvious those names should be.

“You do have to start with who you think your core group is,” Sweeney said of naming those first six players in June. “But it’s also opportunities for Jim and I, and Doug, to have conversations with these players — not unlike what you would do with your core group on your NHL team — just to have their opinion about where they see things. Some of these guys may end up playing wing as opposed to center, so having some conversations along those regards and just planting seeds in terms of how they envision a group that needs to come together without a lot of practice time — without some of the same training camp preparations that you would normally have.

“I know how excited they’ll be, just sharing knowledge in that sense.”

Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon figure to be battling for the same side at the 4 Nations event. (Codie McLachlan / Getty Images)

Oh to be a fly on the wall when Sweeney has those conversations with the likes of McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon, about how they envision the best possible version of Team Canada coming together. The hockey nerd in me loves that stuff.

Sweeney said they had a conference call scheduled for later on Monday with the rest of the management group to start talking about those first six roster players, their core guys. The management group has already had a few calls but wanted to get another one in before the Stanley Cup playoffs start.

“I don’t think that core group will change much between now and June, to be honest with you,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney and Nill were also named to Armstrong’s Olympic management staff for Italy, keeping with the idea of continuity for the 4 Nations and Olympics. But one thing Armstrong stressed when we spoke on Friday is that while there’s obvious overlap and a desire to have philosophical tie-ins between the best-on-best events, Sweeney’s top priority is to build a team to win 4 Nations.

“Yeah, and it is going to be an NHL tournament, so there are nuances of the international game (at the Olympics) as opposed to our game,” Sweeney said. “Maybe our roster composition reflects that. It may not, but you have to be cognizant of it.

“Looking at other rosters, who may be on the team next February as opposed to two years down the road, there’s some forecasting involved. A guy that’s really as impactful as he is today, you don’t know where he’s necessarily going to be down the road. So our job is to put the best possible team together for the 4 Nations. Which clearly has an eye towards setting up Hockey Canada for the Olympic team, which the vast majority will be comprised of it, but I don’t think it’ll be the exact same two teams.

“Jim and I have to put the best possible team to win in February.”

Sweeney’s own NHL captain in Boston will obviously be a candidate. I jokingly asked Sweeney if Brad Marchand has already mentioned to the Bruins GM the idea of an all-Nova Scotia line alongside Crosby and MacKinnon.

“Brad was quick to congratulate me, so he’s lobbying already,” Sweeney said, chuckling. “But his play and everybody else’s play will dictate (it). As Doug said, we’re going to take the best players.”

One thing Sweeney remembers is having a conversation with former Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron about his Olympic experiences with Team Canada.

“He made that team and started out in a role that he certainly didn’t finish in at the Olympics because he ingratiated himself with that coaching staff with what he could do, as opposed to what they didn’t know he could do. You know, playing with the best players,” Sweeney said. “And sometimes, on your own teams, guys are playing roles that they may very well not play in a 4 Nations or Olympic environment.

“Can they go down and complement a team in a somewhat reduced role compared to what they normally do? Those are important nuances to figure out. As I said earlier, which guys can play different positions? The vast majority can play both (penalty kill and power play), but when you’re sitting on the bench for periods of time that you’re not accustomed to and then you have to go out to start the motor, sometimes that’s unique for guys to be able to do that. We have to be aware of it. That’s why I said that the world championships is a good evaluation tool, for guys to go play in some of those situations.”

Team Canada at best-on-best normally ends up with more centers than natural wingers, which means centers playing wing. That certainly worked out with Canada winning the last three best-on-best events: Olympic gold in 2010 and 2014 and the World Cup of Hockey in 2016.

What I don’t think you’ll see Sweeney and Nill do is overthink the roster construction as far as taking a role player over a more skilled player.

“We’re going to take the best players,” Sweeney said again. “But they do have to be able to understand and embrace their roles. And personalities and character, all the things we all try to assess every day, will be important parts of all this.”

The NHL still hasn’t finalized or made it official that Boston and Montreal will co-host the 4 Nations event, but that’s indeed the plan. And the neat thing for Sweeney is that if Team Canada makes it to the end, the championship game is slated to be played in Boston.

Talk about a unique situation for Sweeney: to suddenly be at the helm of the team that won’t be cheered on by the crowd at TD Garden.

“I sure as hell hope we’re in that game,” Sweeney said. “Because that would be exciting. I’ve been in a few those environments in that building. That would be a great one to be part of.”

(Top photo: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)