Canadian men’s hockey team easier to cheer for than identify
There’s no way to argue with GM Sean Burke’s selections. Everyone’s too busy Googling the unfamiliar names heading for a Winter Olympics tournament minus NHLers, where expectations shouldn’t be sky high, Dave Feschuk writes.
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As the brain trust of Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team introduced its roster for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games on Thursday, there were repeated references to the squad’s underdog character.
“All of our players, at somewhere along the line, they’ve been told ‘No,’” head coach Willie Desjardins said.
And yet, here they all were, less than a month away from the opening ceremony, being told “Yes.”
Yes, Mason Raymond, former Maple Leaf and 32-year-old Swiss leaguer — you’re among the selected group being charged with attempting to defend the gold medals won by Canada’s best NHLers at the previous two Olympics. Yes, Chris Kelly, 37-year-old Toronto native who has played all of 10 games in the AHL this season — you, too, get to wear the national maple leaf. And yes, Ben Scrivens, one-time Maple Leafs backup goaltender in the “18-wheeler off a cliff” era: Never mind your career NHL save percentage of .905. You’re the most likely candidate to succeed Carey Price as Canada’s Olympic No. 1.
To give you an idea of the calibre of talent that will be joining Raymond, Kelly and Scrivens for a pre-Olympic training camp that begins Jan. 28 in Latvia, consider that the best player named to the roster — at least, in terms of relevant in-season statistics — is probably Linden Vey.
Vey is having a superb season playing for the KHL’s Kazakhstan-based entry, currently sitting third in the league’s scoring race, a handful of points behind Ilya Kovalchuk. But as an NHLer, Vey was a role player who played a combined 138 games in L.A., Vancouver and Calgary. Told “no” by the world’s best league, he’s found others who’ll say “yes.” So he’s a great story, if not one of the world’s great players.
Which is why, when the men’s Olympic hockey tournament gets going next month, it’ll be easy enough to get behind Canada’s entry, even if an Olympics without NHLers will make supporting Canada a wholly foreign exercise to anyone who doesn’t remember the Olympics without NHLers.
One thing nobody was doing on Thursday was quibbling with general manager Sean Burke’s selections. You don’t debate a non-NHL-based Olympic roster. You research it.
Another thing nobody was doing: expecting much. Burke didn’t promise anything but “gold-medal effort” — which isn’t exactly gold medal or bust. But that’s only smart. Nobody with a vague grasp of Canadian hockey history forgets the reason why Canada’s hockeyists went half a century without winning Olympic gold before a triumphant victory in Salt Lake City in 2002. For all of those un-golden Games but the 1998 version, Canada’s representatives weren’t Canada’s best hockey players. For all those un-golden Games, the tournament was dominated by the former Soviet Union — forefathers of the Olympic Athletes from Russia who’ll skate at the coming Games.
If those OAR sweaters will lack Russian flags — as per the International Olympic Committee’s vision of discipline for a state-sponsored doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Olympics — they’re expected to be populated by at least a few name brands, including Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk. Those heavy hitters will be bolstered by a core made up of KHL teammates who’ll have the advantage of familiarity that, so often in history, has helped push European countries with domestic leagues ahead of Canada’s non-NHL Olympians in the podium pecking order.
To combat that age-old Euro advantage, Burke appears to have erred on the side of the aged. The roster averages 31 years old. Derek Roy, 34, brings 738 games of NHL experience, even if he hasn’t played there since 2015. Rene Bourque, 36, brings 725 NHL games, even if he has spent this season in the Swedish league. And if things get greasy, it’s good to know Canada’s 32-year-old Swiss-league fixture Maxim Lapierre has played almost as many NHL games (614) as he has compiled NHL penalty minutes (586).
“These guys . . . they earned it,” Burke told reporters in Calgary. “We’ve been able to give a lot of players across Canada an opportunity to make this team, and what I feel best about is that we’ve seen our players numerous times. I don’t think you could say we missed anybody.”
Combine the career NHL save percentages of Scrivens and goalie teammates Kevin Poulin and Justin Peters and you get a composite number of .903. That gives you a clue why Scrivens, Poulin and Peters have spent a collective 19 seasons in the NHL and started a combined 242 games.
“This group will make Canada proud,” said Burke. “There are some tremendous stories here, guys who have had adversity through some phase of their careers.”
No doubt about that. Wojtek Wolski, the Polish-born, Toronto-raised KHLer, is preparing to play for Canada only a year after he nearly lost his career to a catastrophic neck injury suffered after a headfirst slide into the boards. Brandon Kozun, another ex-Leaf, appears to have made Canada’s team less on his scoring touch — which, during recent KHL run, has been considerable — than on pure grit.
“(Kozun) was a top-five player the last two years in the KHL (with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv). We thought for sure he’d be on the team, and he comes in and things don’t go well the first (preparatory) tournament. He’s supposed to be a scorer and he’s not scoring,” Desjardins said. “What does he do? He finds another way to make the team . . . He worked so hard, he wouldn’t accept not making it. He hit everybody. He just wanted to make this team.”
In other words, don’t bet against this plucky collection of underdogs that’ll be representing hockey’s international overdog in Pyeongchang. But don’t bet on them, either, at least heavily.