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Team Canada looks to make the most of a once-in-a-lifetime hockey opportunity

GANGNEUNG,, Korea, Republic Of — Assistant coach Dave King stepped off the ice at the Gangneung Hockey Centre practice rink Friday wearing a pair of skates older than at least a dozen members of Team Canada.

"Those skates are 1986," he said, when asked about their origins. "They're beautiful, comfortable. Slippers."

A trim-looking 70, King has likely forgotten more about hockey than most will ever learn. His ABC of coaching includes lessons learned behind the bench of Adler Mannheim, the Billings Bighorns and Calgary Flames, not to mention a host of other teams around the globe. 

And he, for one, expects an entertaining Olympic hockey tournament despite the absence of NHL stars.

"There's no question hockey fans, everybody's talking about they'd like to see Sidney Crosby and company and we do understand that," King said after Canada's first practice at the Games. "But I still think in this particular competition, these guys are all — on every country — so excited about the opportunity. And they all think they have the chance for a medal.

"So I think it's going to set up some really fierce competition. The fans are going to get some good hockey to watch."

King says for every team here, "this is their time in the sun."

"To be centre stage at the Olympics is pretty amazing. And it's not going to happen again," he added. "(Olympic participation) will be part of the collective bargaining agreement from this point on. So this is the only group and the last group ever to get this opportunity."

The puck has yet to drop in Pyeongchang but differences are already plain to see compared to recent Olympic hockey tournaments. The small group of Canadian reporters in the stands spent much of Friday's practice trying to put names to faces.

What they saw on the ice was a fast-paced practice with players hurtling down the big ice surface as if propelled by a slingshot.

Asked what fans will see in this team, veteran defenceman Chris Lee replied: "Speed and passion."

"We're here to leave everything out on the ice and play with our hearts. We know we're going to be a hard-working team. It's something that they're trying to instill in us — to play Canadian hockey. And that's hard work, that's passionate, that's leaving everything on the ice. And I think we can bring that for sure."

Lee is the one member of the roster never to have played in the NHL. But he has logged big minutes over the last five seasons in Russia. The 37-year-old from MacTier, Ont., also spent two season in Germany, one in Sweden and six in the North American minors.

Hockey Canada has embraced its non-NHL team and vagabond roots. A trivia quiz on its Team Canada Twitter feed asked which two players have each played for 13 different pro teams? The answer is Gilbert Brule and Andrew Ebbett.

The trivia quiz also revealed that the 25 team members have played for a total of 23 NHL teams including the Canadiens, Canucks, Flames, Jets, Maple Leafs, Oilers and Senators. Arizona/Phoenix is the most common NHL home, with seven players having worn the Coyotes colours.

The Canadians have played in 13 different leagues.

Defenceman Maxim Noreau, who plays in Switzerland, said there have been "some hard decisions" in his hockey career. But he's had people in his corner.

"My wife's followed me around and always told me 'It doesn't matter where you go, I'll be there.'"

Now all the moves seem worthwhile.

"I'm for sure grateful about that because we ended up here. There's nowhere else I'd rather be right now," he said.

The Canadians face Sweden in Incheon on Sunday (Canada time) in one final tune-up game before beginning tournament play against Switzerland on Feb. 15. Other Group A opponents are South Korea and the Czech Republic.

Kevin Poulin and Ben Scrivens played in goal in pre-tournament wins over Belarus and Latvia. Head coach Willie Desjardins said one of those two would start against Sweden rather than third goalie Justin Peters.

Asked if he had chosen a No. 1, Desjardins said: "Not yet. But we're fortunate both guys played well. So either guy can play."

The Canadians have packed a lot in on and off the ice in advance of the games. Calgary mountain climber and motivational speaker Jamie Clarke, who has reached the summit of Mount Everest twice, is with the team here and is regularly consulted by the players.

The players have also picked the brains of King, Martin Brodeur and Sean Burke, part of the management team, about what to expect at the games. 

But after stepping off the Olympic ice, Lee was still pinching himself.

"It's still not sinking in yet," Lee said with a smile that was missing at least one tooth. "It's starting to, the more that we get around the Village and see some more of the athletes."

 

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