Men’s non-NHL Olympic hockey team built to win the ‘Canadian Way’

Irfaan Gaffar catches up with Sean Burke after the announcement of Team Canada's Olympic hockey roster, discussing the selection process and what it meant to both players and staff.

In describing the Canadian men’s hockey team for the 2018 Olympics, Willie Desjardins decided to tell a few stories. The head coach started off by talking about Brandon Kozun, a scorer who wasn’t scoring during the evaluation period, but worked so hard to contribute in other areas that he still forced his way on to the team.

“He wouldn’t accept not making it,” marvelled Desjardins. “Kozie’s about 5-5 – he hit everybody.”

Then there’s Mason Raymond, a slick-skating forward who wound himself “so tight” before games because of his desperation to play in Pyeongchang, and can now play free. Desjardins talked about families, and how Hockey Canada officials let former NHLer Steve Thomas call his son Christian and break the news that he was going to the Olympics.

Finally, he brought up Wojtek Wolski, a skilled winger who after being informed that he’d made the team looked at a picture of himself in a hospital bed with a broken neck from a year ago, and cried.

“That’s what our team is about,” said Desjardins. “It’s about guys who have received a no but found a way to make a yes. Their determination and their heart is incredible.”

More, quite obviously, than determination and heart alone will be required for Canada to win a third consecutive men’s hockey gold at the Olympics next month, especially without access to the country’s unrivalled repository of NHLers.

But Desjardins, along with the management team led by GM Sean Burke, assistant GM Martin Brodeur and vice-president of hockey operations and national teams Scott Salmond, made sure their 25-man roster included players with a surplus of fortitude to complement their skill.

Minus the generational talent of Sidney Crosby and superstars like Jonathan Toews, Connor McDavid, Drew Doughty and Carey Price, team officials thought a lot about what type of identity they wanted this Canadian squad to have.

“A lot of it came down to wanting to be a very hard team to play against,” said Burke, himself an Olympian on the 1988 and ’92 squads that also didn’t include NHL players. “The Olympics are going to have very talented teams there, there’s obviously the pressure of the big stage, but we did want to have what we’ve always considered the Canadian Way to be a big part of the flavour of our team.

“I feel we’ve got a very mobile defence, we’ve got skill up front, some size, but more than anything, I think we’ve got the character throughout our lineup that gives us the opportunity to play that way and be a very hard team to play against.”

Forwards Derek Roy, Rene Bourque, Gilbert Brule, Linden Vey, along with Kozun, Raymond and Wolski, defencemen Marc-Andre Gragnani and Cody Goloubef and goalie Ben Scrivens may be familiar to NHL fans, and headline a veteran-laden squad selected solely from the professional game. Thirteen of the 25 players are in the KHL, followed by four from the Swiss league, three each from the American Hockey League and Swedish loop, and one apiece from Germany and Austria.

A small handful of NCAA players were among the 80 men to suit up for the national team since August, but none from the college or major junior ranks ultimately made it.

“It’s a man’s game,” said Salmond. “That’s not to say some of these kids aren’t at the development stage where they can play with men, but what it does say is that it takes some time to make that adjustment, whether it’s from the NCAA or the Canadian Hockey League, to get up to speed to playing at that level with that size and strength factor. We don’t have that time.”

Hence the emphasis on experience and character, a formula that served Canada well at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, the last time the Olympics were contested without NHL players. While that group included two top-end talents in a 19-year-old Paul Kariya and naturalized Czech Petr Nedved, they won silver by playing a disciplined, hard game in which each player performed to his role.

“They had the opportunity to sign their work, to do what they could do within a game to help us all have success,” Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney, who coached the ’94 squad, said in a recent interview.

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In events like the 12-team Olympic tournament – Canada opens in Group A along with host South Korea, the Czech Republic and Switzerland – especially one without NHL players, there is an added degree of small-sample-size randomness that can factor into outcomes, as well.

Being able to lean on a collective toughness or will, what Burke termed the Canadian Way, can sometimes be the difference.

“You’re not looking for it when you scout,” said Burke. “You know you need it, you know it has to be a part of your team, but it just comes out of players and it becomes obvious who those guys are for you.”

This 25-man roster won’t have much time to jell. The 13 KHL players are scheduled to arrive for a training camp in Riga, Latvia on Jan. 28, with the others to follow once their leagues allow. Exhibition games simulating the Pyeongchang schedule are set for Feb. 4 against Latvia and Feb. 6 versus Belarus, with a final warmup contest with Sweden on Feb. 12 in South Korea.

Then it starts for real Feb. 15 against Switzerland, when Desjardins’ group of players who turned their no into a yes try to fight their way back atop the podium.

“How it manifests itself is when things get tough,” said Desjardins. “It’s when you’re down by a goal in the third period, it’s when somebody maybe gives you a cheap shot and you don’t retaliate, it’s finding a way to keep your focus in mind on where you want to go.

“There always will be adversity. We know going in there’s going to be adversity in this tournament. It’s not going to go smoothly all along. You go back to Canada’s world junior team (earlier this month), they had an early game where their discipline wasn’t great, the coaching staff talked about it and they had great discipline in the final, and that was a big part of them winning. It comes out and shows itself when things get tough.”

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