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Team Canada men’s Olympic hockey team has opportunity to be a great story

Be open-minded. At the very least, be open-minded.

Give Canada’s Olympic men’s team a chance. The women, in their sixth Olympics, will surely get the same support as always, particularly when they play the United States. Heck, we’re still buzzing from the gold medal game at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi four years ago when Brianne Jenner and Marie-Philip Poulin tied a game against the Americans that seemed lost with two late goals, and then Poulin won it in overtime. That became the most talked about hockey game from Sochi, at least for Canadian fans.

Chances are, the Canadian and American women are going to deliver some more thrills this time in South Korea, and the open question is, once again, whether any of the other women’s hockey countries can get more involved in the serious competition for medals.

But the men? With no NHLers on the Canadian side for the first time since 1994, these guys are going to have to fight a little for attention, which is okay. Make them earn it. They know the country is behind them, but now it’s up to Willie Desjardins’ crew to demonstrate they are a team worth watching.

And how cool is that? The women are the established squad, the men have something to prove. Good in a broad, inclusive sense for Canadian hockey, it says here, and a lot of the players on the men’s team with their individual stories feel a lot more like Olympians than did those who played for Canada in the past five Winter Games. But hey, maybe that’s just me.

The Canadian men’s team is an underdog for the first time in more than two decades. All the countries in the competition are underdogs to Russia, or the Olympic athletes representing Russia, or whatever the IOC has chosen to call athletes from a country that is banned but not really banned because you know that corrupt organization wouldn’t know a principle unless it was hanging from one of the five rings waving a fistful of dollars.

So it’s the sort-of Russians against the world. Intriguing.

For an entire generation of Canadian hockey fans, all those below 25 years of age and probably most of those below 30, this is an entirely new thing. No NHLers? No Ryan Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby or Drew Doughty? Canada not the favourite? Weird.

But they like hockey, and probably like cheering for teams with the Maple Leaf on their chest. Every winter, they embrace a group of teenagers they may or may not know very well at the World Junior Championship and cheer like heck. They watch in big numbers on television, and buy up tickets like mad unless the tournament is an obvious money grab the second time around in Buffalo and maybe isn’t quite what it once was. But that’s another discussion.

The point is, Canada has a history of cheering for teams on an international stage whether they’re players well-known to us or not. In this case, being an underdog to Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk sets the scene rather nicely. The Country Formerly Known As Russia isn’t in Canada’s pool, but hopefully the two countries will collide somewhere along the way.

Canada’s in with the Czechs, the South Koreans and the Swiss, with the first Olympic game coming up against Switzerland a week this Thursday.

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Don’t know how much you remember about the men’s hockey tournament in Sochi. It was, for the most part, dull. Zzzzz. Canada just kind of leaned on the rest of the world, and eventually, the rest of the word submitted. It was not a thing of beauty.

So one thing Team Canada and the other 11 nations in South Korea can do for starters is entertain us. Deliver a style of hockey unique to the situation, and make it interesting.

This may not be easy on the big ice. While congestion in the NHL has motivated many to suggest going to an international ice surface would solve everything, the reality is on the big ice, the extra areas are really just a place from where you can’t score. Teams don’t chase and forecheck hard. They retreat and protect the more meaningful areas.

If that’s what this becomes this time around – and back-to-back 2-0 wins by Team Canada over Latvia and Belarus in pre-tournament play suggest it might – then it’s going to be hard for Ben Scrivens, Chris Kelly, Mason Raymond, Derek Roy and the rest to catch our imagination.

The assumption is that this team will be different by the end of the competition than it is right now, that it is developing and learning which players can and should play more, which may not be as useful as originally believed, and which goalie should play the most. Fair enough. But somewhere along the way they’re going to need to find some goals, some pizzazz and creativity, and if they want us to love them, mimicking the New Jersey Devils circa 1995 won’t be the way to do it.

You’d rather them take a big cut at the Russians, Americans or whoever and go down swinging. But that will be up to Desjardins, the former Vancouver and world junior coach. He can either reel ‘em in or let ‘em go.

The larger challenge for Team Canada is that it will be going head-to-head against NHL competition, although not necessarily in the same time slots. The day Canada and the Swiss play, there will be 11 NHL games. Given that we’re getting close to the trade deadline and the final push for the playoffs, there will be intense interest in that slate of games. Back in ’94, the last time the NHL wasn’t at the Olympics, there was no social media, and certainly no packages that allowed NHL fans to watch whatever game they wanted, whenever they wanted, on whatever device happened to be in their hands at that moment.

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Canada’s Olympic men’s team will have to fight through all that white noise, plus the Raptors, plus the start of spring training, just to get noticed at all. There’s nobody on the team as newsy as Eric Lindros and Sean Burke were in ’92 or Paul Kariya was in ’94, so they’re going to have to give people a reason to watch. It’s hard to pick out the most prominent member of Team Canada ’18 because, well, right now there isn’t one.

Gilbert Brule will be interesting to watch a dozen years after the Columbus Blue Jackets picked him to be their next franchise player. Stevie Thomas’ kid, Christian, is still only 25, presumably with NHL dreams that won’t die. Wojtek Wolski has had to overcome a lot to keep his career going. The average age of Team Canada’s forwards is just over 31 years, which probably tells you this is the last chance at glory for many of them.

So be open-minded. Give them a chance, and give yourself a chance to be pleasantly surprised by what you see.