Sports

Families look on with pride as non-NHL Team Canada opens Olympics with a win

Wojtek Wolski (8), of Canada, scores on an empty net against Switzerland during the third period of a preliminary round men's hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Canada won 5-1. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Wojtek Wolski (8), of Canada, scores on an empty net against Switzerland during the third period of a preliminary round men's hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Canada won 5-1. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

GANGNEUNG, Korea, Republic Of — Team Canada defenceman Chris Lee looked up during the pre-game warmup and caught a glimpse of his family in the stands waving the Canadian flag.

"That caught me off guard a little bit. I was taken aback by that. It was a pretty special moment that they can be here and support me like that," said the 37-year-old Lee, who has played in five different pro leagues in four different countries.

Winger Wojtek Wolski had 11 members of his family on hand at the Kwandong Hockey Centre, with more headed to South Korea.

"I'm sure you saw them. My uncle was running around with a sign with my name on it and a cowboy hat on," said the 31-year-old from Toronto, who has battled a broken neck and depression during his hockey career.

"I've got 11 people here and some more coming. They're very excited and very proud."

The NHLers may be missing, but those wearing the Maple Leaf for Team Canada at the Pyeongchang Winter Games wasted little time making memories as they opened their Olympic campaign with a 5-1 victory over Switzerland on Thursday. 

Wolski and Rene Bourque each scored twice while Derek Roy had three assists. Maxim Noreau had a goal and an assist for a hard-working, hard-skating Canada. Lee had a pair of assists.

For a team expected to score by committee, the Canadian men found their offence early. They led 2-0 after 7 1/2 minutes and made the Swiss pay twice when they went to the penalty box.

Simon Moser pulled one back for Switzerland on the power play at 7:33 of the third, tapping in a puck that trickled through Ben Scrivens' legs after a goalmouth scramble.

"Job 1 done," said Lee. "And we know it's not going to get any easier moving forward. I think every game's going to be difficult."

Canada's next game is Saturday against the Czech Republic, which beat South Korea 2-1 in the other night game at the Gangneung Hockey Centre.

It marked the first time since the 1994 Games that Canada fielded a team that wasn't made up of NHLers. And the first time since 1956 that no player on Team Canada had any Olympic experience.

Canada's 25-man roster does boast 5,544 NHL games played, led by captain Chris Kelly's 833 outings with the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators. Lee and fellow defenceman Mat Robinson are the only players without NHL experience.

Lee said Canada will have to grind its way through the tournament, agreeing that it probably won't be pretty.

"It's not, especially with our team. I think we're going to work our butts off. We're going to find a way to score goals. They're not going to be pretty goals but we'll work hard and hopefully make our country proud."

The Swiss team is made up entirely of Swiss league talent. Canada's squad is European-based with the exception of the players from the North American minors.

Swiss coach Patrick Fischer reckons he is without some 12-13 NHL players here. "But Canada is missing 200," Fischer said with a wry smile prior to the game.

The Canadians chased Swiss goalie Leonardo Genoni less than six minutes into the second period after he gave up his fourth goal on 12 shots. Scrivens, who plies his trade in the KHL these days, was solid in the Canada goal.

"A good start," said head coach Willie Desjardins after paying tribute to the Swiss for their effort.

"We needed it from everybody and I thought we got a real good performance from lots of guys tonight," he added.

Canadian flags were visible all around the 6,000-seat arena but so were empty chairs.

Bourque, who potted 163 goals for six NHL teams, scored on Canada's first shot when he cruised out from the corner to deftly tip in a Lee slap-pass from the blueline at 2:57. 

Noreau made it 2-0 on the power play at 7:30, with his shot from the blueline beating Genoni with Bourque screening. Rob Klinkhammer, a physical presence at the other end, rang one off the post late in the period.

The Canadian power play struck again five minutes into the second period with Bourque stuffing the puck in from in front. Wolski scored on a brilliant solo rush 52 seconds later, slicing through two Swiss players before beating Genoni high on the glove side.

"I'm sure I'll remember it for the rest of my life and I'll probably brag about it to my kids one day," said Wolski, who has 451 games with six NHL teams but now wears Russian club colours.

That was it for the Swiss starter, who was pulled in favour of former NHLer Jonas Hiller.

Wolski capped the scoring with an empty-net goal.

Switzerland pushed back at the end of the second period, keeping the puck in the Canadian zone but could not convert the pressure.

The Canadians had to survive 33 seconds of five-on-three in the third. But Moser scored with the one-man advantage.

"I cannot blame the players," said Fischer. "They tried hard. It's just that we got surprised that the Canadians battled harder than us. We got to raise the level, but everybody tried his best and we tried until the end. That's all we can ask for."

While Canada now holds a 40-4-2 edge over Switzerland in Olympic and IIHF World Championship play, the Swiss had won two of the last three meetings and four of the last nine.

The Swiss triumphed the last time they met, a 3-2 overtime win in preliminary-round play last May at the 2017 world championships.

Two-time defending champion Canada has won three of the five Olympic men's tournaments (2002, 2006, 2010) since NHL players started competing in the Games in 1998.

The NHL accounted for 49 per cent of the players at the 2014 Games in Sochi, compared to Nagano 1998 (36 per cent), Salt Lake City 2002 (45 per cent), Turin 2006 (54 per cent) and Vancouver 2010 (51 per cent).

Goaltender Justin Peters, defenceman Stefan Elliott and forward Brandon Kozun did not dress Thursday for Canada.

 

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