The last time the Olympics were held without NHL players, the gold medal game between Canada and Sweden was decided by a shootout. The Tre Kronor won in 1994 on Peter Forsberg’s famous stamp goal.
As close as that outcome was, Dave King expects things to be just as tight in Pyeongchang next February.
“It won’t be best on best, but it’s still going to be a very interesting competition,” King said during an interview with Sportsnet in June. “There looks to me like there could be four or five teams that can win it. There’s not a pronounced favourite.”
As was initially reported by Sportsnet in May, King was officially named by Hockey Canada to the Olympic men’s coaching staff on Tuesday. King will work as an assistant under coach Willie Desjardins and GM Sean Burke.
“With his experience,” Burke said in a text message, “he can help in numerous areas.”
King has coached Canada three times at the Olympics – in 1984, 1988 and 1992 – before NHLers were permitted to participate. He won a silver medal in 1992 with Burke as his goaltender.
The 69-year-old from North Battleford, Sask., is also set to make his second appearance at a Games in Asia. King took a leave while an assistant with the Montreal Canadiens to coach the host Japanese team in 1998 – the first time with NHLers.
A hockey nomad, King has been an NHL bench boss for Calgary and Columbus, an assistant with Montreal and Phoenix, and has coached professionally in Germany, Sweden and Russia.
Through his experiences, King believes the styles of play around the world are becoming more alike.
“Our game has changed and adapted. It’s become a hybrid game,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve brought in European power plays, European offensive tendencies that have crept into our game.
“It’s the same with the European game. There’s a lot of defensive structure that has permeated their game and changed their style of game a little bit. They’re more contentious defensively. They pay attention to both sides of the equation more than they did in my era in the early ’80s.”
Hockey Canada enlisted King’s assistance a year ago with the spectre of the NHL not taking part at the 2018 Olympics.
King coached Canada to a second-place showing at the Deutschland Cup, a four-team international tournament in November. He was then an associate coach to Luke Richardson at the Spengler Cup, an event Canada won. King was also part of the staff at the world championship in May when the Canadians earned a silver medal.
The Deutschland Cup and the world championship were particularly useful from a scouting perspective.
The former tourney saw Canada face off against Slovakia, Germany and Switzerland – countries that used lineups that should closely resemble the ones they’ll ice next February. Same goes for some of the teams at the worlds.
“Those are their Olympic rosters,” King said. “A few of those teams had two or three NHLers. But for the majority (of those rosters), you saw how they play, what their personnel looks like.
“Now it’s, how good can we get?”
And that’s the rub.
Hockey Canada is waiting for the final word about which players will be eligible for the Olympics. At least the Deutschland and Spengler Cups allowed King, Burke et al., to see more than 40 players up close and personal wearing the Maple Leaf.
“We kind of know what’s out there. We have a starting point,” King said.
Still, for all his non-NHL Olympic experience, King admits this one will be mostly different.
Canada had a full-time national team in the past that saw players train together and compete in exhibition matches leading up to the Games. That won’t happen in the same manner this time.
As part of the Tuesday’s announcement in Calgary, vice-president of hockey operations and national men’s teams Scott Salmond said Team Canada will use 45 players to compete in five tournaments ahead of the Games. The first two events are in Russia next month. One in November and another in December follow before the Spengler Cup just after Christmas time.
Salmond added the team plans to arrive in Seoul, South Korea on Feb. 4 and play a couple exhibition games before the Olympics commence.
“It’s never been done for Canada in this manner,” King said. “It’s very unique.”
Not that unique is bad. And that’s where a similarity comes in.
“I was lucky when I coached with the national team,” King said. “We had players we knew on our team were going to be NHLers. But we also had players we knew probably weren’t going to be good enough for the NHL. The Olympics were their epitome. It was going to be the event in their hockey career.
“This group’s going to be very similar. There are going to be players who would have never thought they’d have the opportunity. Now they’ve got it. And they’ll make the best of it.”
Whether it’s good enough for gold is the question. Canada hasn’t finished first in an Olympics without NHLers since 1952 when the Edmonton Mercurys won in Oslo, Norway.
Of course, getting back atop the podium won’t be easy.
“All the teams now are so much better prepared,” King said. “A lot of these players that play on other countries have played in four, five or six world championships. They aren’t NHL players, but they play in various leagues in Europe. But they’ve played against NHL players. A lot of NHL players. Their level of confidence is a lot higher.
“There are going to be a couple teams that have the edge in terms of talent, but there will be a lot of teams with belief they can win. That will make it a really good competition.”