Canada has considered junior players for Olympics

Gilles Courteau, QMJHL commissioner. (Peter McCabe/CP)

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League commissioner Gilles Courteau says he has talked with Hockey Canada about using junior players at the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics.

Adding junior players — amateurs under the age of 21 — to Canada’s men’s team might be an option if the Kontinental Hockey League decides to boycott the 2018 Winter Games. Canada’s current men’s senior team, already stretched thin after the NHL decided its players will not compete at the Olympics, has over a dozen players on KHL teams.

"We’re talking with Hockey Canada," said Courteau, whose league also has several players from the United States and Europe. "I don’t know what’s going to be the development with European countries, if they want to look at some junior players. I have no idea at this time.

"We have very good communication with Hockey Canada and we’re open to looking at different possibilities if Hockey Canada would like to have some of our junior players going to the Olympic selection camp."

Relying on junior players is one of the contingencies left to Hockey Canada after the NHL pulled out of participating in the Winter Olympics on April 3. Right now, Hockey Canada is using top-level players from other professional leagues, mainly based in Europe.

That team is participating in three international tournaments this winter — the Karjala Cup, the Channel One Cup and the Spengler Cup — to build team chemistry and to help Hockey Canada’s Olympic management group, led by former NHL goalie Sean Burke, settle on a final roster.

However, the KHL, Russia’s top professional league, announced on Nov. 4 that it might withdraw its players from the Olympics if Russia was sanctioned for its doping program at the 2014 Sochi Games.

The International Olmpic Committee punished Russia on Tuesday for doping violations by its athletes by banning the country from competing in February’s Winter Games in South Korea. Some Russians will be allowed to compete as neutral athletes.

"Maybe following an update from the (International Ice Hockey Federation) and KHL and all of that it might be another story, not only with Hockey Canada but with all the other countries," said Courteau. "We’ll see. As of today we have nothing official. Things evolve on a daily basis and we have to take it a step at a time and we’ll see what the final request will be."

The KHL threatened its boycott as Canada’s senior team was in the air, travelling to Helsinki, Finland for the Karjala Cup. That roster had 15 players on it from the KHL, including goalie Ben Scrivens (Salavat Yulaev Ufa), who started every game at the tournament for Canada. Gilbert Brule (Kunlun Red Star), Eric O’Dell (HC Sochi) and Matt Ellison (Metallurg Magnitogorsk) all had goals in Canada’s three games in Finland.

Those players, as well as notables like Wojtek Wolski (Kunlun Red Star), Brandon Kozun (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl), Teddy Purcell (Avangard, Omsk), Matt Frattin (Barys Astana) and Max Talbot (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl) could all be disqualified from the team because of the KHL’s boycott.

Courteau isn’t sure of what Hockey Canada’s next step could be if KHL players are kept out of the Olympics.

"There are players playing elsewhere in Europe, there are players playing at the (university) level, that could be considered as well, I don’t know," said Courteau. "We don’t have an idea of the depth chart for Hockey Canada’s Olympic team.

"The only thing we’ve been talking to them was about the possibility of maybe adding some junior players to their roster."

Canada’s theoretical Olympic roster begins play at the Channel One Cup in Moscow on Dec. 13 against South Korea. That roster is very similar to the Karjala Cup’s lineup, but actually features more Canadians from KHL teams, with a total of 19.

Hockey Canada has been quiet about a Plan C for the Olympics, but issued a statement in support of anti-doping measures on Tuesday.

"Hockey Canada believes in clean sport and a level playing field for all athletes. We trust that the IOC and IIHF will continue to ensure that all athletes compete on an equal playing field."

Shawn Bullock, Hockey Canada’s senior manager for hockey operations of the men’s national teams, had no comment when asked about the possibility of using junior players at the Olympics.

Courteau thinks it would be a tremendous opportunity for any junior player to compete at the Olympics but noted it would be tough on club teams to lose one of their top players for several weeks in the middle of the season.