The way the teams were announced couldn’t have been more different.
The Vegas Golden Knights were unveiled slowly, bit by bit, surrounded by the glitz and glamour of the NHL Awards Show in Sin City. Owner Bill Foley and GM George McPhee alternated reading the names of the expansion team’s newest additions, pausing after each one to allow hosts Daren Millard and Kathryn Tappen to rhyme off a neat factoid or two.
By comparison, the press conference in Calgary to reveal the Canadian men’s Olympic team was low key. Canadian Olympic Committee CEO Chris Overholt gave a brief overview of the history of men’s hockey at the Games; Hockey Canada vice-president of hockey operations Scott Salmond and GM Sean Burke expressed their gratitude. Burke then teed up a three-minute video where each of the 25 players introduced himself.
But even if the announcements were short on similarities, there are plenty to be found in the processes that finalized each of these teams — at least according to Burke. “You’re out there watching players,” Burke explains. “Vegas knew to a degree who was going to be available … up to a point. Same thing with us.”
Burke, normally a scout with the Montreal Canadiens, scoured the globe this season to find the best collection of Canadian players for the first Games since 1994 to feature not a single active NHLer. The 1988 and 1992 Olympic goaltender estimates he spent 20 days a month away from his Arizona home visiting “a lot of places I never expected to go.”
Much like the Vegas roster — a collection of lesser lights who, for whatever reason, couldn’t stick with their teams — the members of the Canadian squad about to hit the ice in Pyeongchang have had to overcome their share of setbacks. “All of our players, at somewhere along the line, they’ve been told ‘No,’” coach Willie Desjardins told reporters in Calgary. “That’s what our team is about. It’s about guys who have received a ‘No’ but found a way to make a ‘Yes.’”
While most of Desjardins’s Yes Men have NHL experience, there isn’t a Crosby, Toews, Doughty or Price in the lot. In fact, their hockey backgrounds are even more varied than those of the castoffs that landed in Vegas. There are first-round picks who didn’t realize their full potential; those that never made The Show or whose careers can be measured in days rather than years; and others with long NHL tenures that ended before they wanted. Still, Burke is hoping is one of the more unique men’s hockey rosters in years can manage to chalk up one more similarity with the Golden Knights — unexpected success. For that to happen, players from different ends of the spectrum have to find common ground and unite as one Team Canada.
THE ONCE-HERALDED PROSPECT
The word Wojtek Wolski uses to describe his hockey career sounds cliché, but it’s true: “roller-coaster.” In barely more than a year, he’s gone from suffering an injury he thought would end his career to recovering and being named an Olympian. He’s still coming to grips with it all. “With everything that happened in the last year, I didn’t think I’d even be playing in the Olympics,” he says. While that 15-month stretch represents the biggest swing of Wolski’s career, the rest of it sure doesn’t lack for twists, turns and loops.
Wolski was star in junior hockey. He racked up 49 points in 33 games for the Jr. A St. Michael’s Buzzers as a 15-year-old, enticing the OHL’s Brampton Battalion to select him third overall in the 2002. Two years later, he went 21st to the Colorado Avalanche — one of only three NHL first-rounders, along with forwards Gilbert Brule and Quinton Howden, on Canada’s Pyeongchang roster. Before he’d even made the NHL for good, it seemed like Wolski was destined for a long and prosperous career.
Wolski was 19 when he made the Avalanche out of training camp. He put up six points in nine games before returning to Brampton for one final junior season. Another year’s experience and a move to centre by Battalion coach Stan Butler led to a 128-point campaign, good for third in league scoring. “I had him for four years; he was very talented,” says Butler, who’s still coach of the team, just now in North Bay. “When guys dominate like that it’s very seldom that they don’t go and have big NHL careers. I thought for sure he’d be a real high NHL guy, but unfortunately in hockey sometimes things just don’t work out.”
Wolski graduated to the NHL and didn’t disappoint as a rookie, finishing eighth in Calder Trophy voting. He cracked the 40-point barrier in each of his first four seasons, including 65 points split between the Avs and Phoenix Coyotes in 2009–10. Then the worm started to turn. Nagging injuries and ineffective play pushed him down the depth charts of the Coyotes, Rangers, Panthers and Capitals to the point where he was often a healthy scratch. The situation affected his mental health. “There was a year or two where I went through depression,” Wolski says. “I didn’t want to play. It just seemed like such a hard time in my life.”
Wolski needed a spark. With his NHL prospects dwindling, he was offered good money in the KHL and made the move in 2013. By his third year in Russia, he was almost a point-per-game player and won the Gagarin Cup with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. “As I started playing better, I started enjoying it more and thriving on the competition and chasing the goal of being better each year,” he says.
Then a neck injury put his career back in jeopardy.
During an Oct. 13, 2016 game, Wolski dove for a loose puck and a Barys Astana opponent fell on top of him. Unable to work himself free, Wolski crashed headfirst into the boards and broke his neck in two spots. It took six months before he started feeling comfortable on his skates again.
That was right around the time the NHL announced its players wouldn’t be going to South Korea. “It was definitely something I was working towards and kept me motivated and determined to do everything I could to come back from the injury to play as well as I could to make the team,” says Wolski, who will turn 32 at the end of the Games.
He did that in Burke’s eyes by December. Splitting time between Kunlun and Magnitogorsk, Wolski was among the KHL scoring leaders and, at six foot three and 220 pounds, he brings a unique combination of size and speed to the roster. “You don’t see a lot of players like him in Europe,” Burke says. “You either see smaller, skilled guys or bigger fourth-line players. You don’t see bigger, skilled guys. That’s what he is. He becomes a real interesting, important player for us.”
THE PEAKING JOURNEYMAN
If Wolski once had promise as a first-round NHL pick, 37-year-old undrafted defenceman Chris Lee was at the other end of the scale. Five members of the Olympic roster have played fewer than 30 NHL games, but Lee and fellow blueliner Mat Robinson are the only two to have never appeared in a single one. However, Lee was one of the first players Hockey Canada zeroed in on when it was announced the NHL was passing on the Games. “He offers a lot for us,” Burke says. “We’re very lucky a player like that’s available to us. He’s obviously not a young guy anymore, but he’s in great shape and he can skate. We’ll look to him to be one of our leaders and our better defencemen.”
Lee was the only non-NHL player on Canada’s silver medal-winning squad at the world championship last May and earned rave reviews from Burke, a member of that team’s management group. Although he was used as depth defenceman, Lee got minutes on the second power-play unit. “To run a power play with Claude Giroux on one side and [Jeff] Skinner on the other and [Wayne] Simmonds and [Brayden] Schenn in the middle, I didn’t think Chris Lee would be out there with those four guys. But it happened,” Lee says.
The only question about Lee’s status for the Olympics was whether he’d remain eligible. With his stock at an all-time high, Lee wanted to realize his NHL dream. His agent, Peter Cooney, presented a few tryout offers and Lee chose the Los Angeles Kings, figuring that would be his best chance. He knew he’d have a strong shot at the Olympic team if things didn’t work out, even though he skipped Canada’s two August tournaments to prepare for L.A.’s training camp. Despite what he felt was a strong showing in September, the Kings released him. “I know I can play with those guys,” he says. “I just didn’t get the opportunity, which was disappointing. At the same time, it opened this door, which turned out to be very huge.”
The tryout was the closest Lee had come to the NHL since 2009–10, his last season in North America. Then with the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Lee was called up before a game in Ottawa — a manageable drive for friends and family members from MacTier, Ont. He took the warmup, but was then told by Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma his services weren’t needed for the night. “I remember feeling awful,” says New Jersey Devils defenceman Ben Lovejoy, who was Lee’s teammate most of that year and was in Ottawa that night. “You get so close and work your entire life for that. He was so close.”
That AHL Penguins lineup was littered with players who would crack NHL rosters. Lovejoy, current Edmonton Oilers forward Mark Letestu and Golden Knight Deryk Engelland – Lee’s regular defence partner – made the jump for good the following season. Lee decided to try Europe before his 30th birthday. “I was thinking to myself if it didn’t happen then, it probably wouldn’t happen,” he says of his decision.
Lee spent two seasons in Germany and one in Sweden before settling in the KHL. Now in his fifth season with Magnitogorsk, he’s coming off a 65-point campaign — tops among blueliners and sixth in the league last season. “If he was born 10 years later, he probably would have had a long NHL career. He’s what teams are looking for now,” Lovejoy says.
It’s those offensive skills on the blue line that make Lee an important part of Team Canada. He’s the oldest member of the team, but his movement on the ice hasn’t slowed. “I seem to be getting better at hockey as I get older, which is kinda backwards a little bit,” he says. “For some reason, it’s working for me.”
THE NHL VETERAN
Chris Kelly may be just a month younger than Lee, but he couldn’t have taken a more different route to the Games. The obvious contrast is their NHL experience. Lee hasn’t played a single game, while Kelly’s résumé includes 833 regular-season and 92 playoff contests — the most by any player on the Olympic team. He’s also the only player with a Stanley Cup ring, won with Boston in 2011, four years after he reached the Cup Final with Ottawa.
Yet the Toronto native is just as proud to be an Olympian. “This is a great accomplishment and it’s right up there with other things I’ve got to experience in my hockey career,” he says. And when you consider the uncertainty Kelly faced mere months ago, it’s not hard to understand why he feels that way.
As Team Canada started to come together in early December, Kelly’s name was only on the periphery. Players like Lee, Wolski, Brule and Ben Scrivens — whom Burke calls “the best goaltender we have in Europe” — had secured roster spots. Kelly, meanwhile, was only starting to figure out the next step in his career.
The longtime NHLer was mostly scratched during Ottawa’s playoff run last spring and was without a team to start the season. He tried out with the Edmonton Oilers and remained with the team until November. Nothing materialized. He says he was never offered a contract. In limbo, Kelly continued skating and gave himself a deadline to land a job: the end of the month. “This has been an interesting year so far. I’ve kind of lived day-to-day,” he says. “I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do.”
Kelly’s luck changed when he was offered a tryout with the Belleville Senators. He dressed in his first game for Ottawa’s AHL affiliate on Nov. 25. In the meantime, his agent, Pat Morris, was on the phone trying to entice Burke to give him a shot at the Spengler Cup in Switzerland, the last audition before the Olympic team was finalized. Kelly had heard nothing but good things about the tournament from former teammates Jason Spezza and Gregory Campbell and jumped at the opportunity when Hockey Canada offered him a spot.
Having players with NHL experience was important to Burke, but not at the expense of someone more capable. If Kelly wanted to be make the Olympic team, he needed to play — and play well. The noted checker and penalty killer had an assist in four games during Canada’s Spengler Cup win. “He came as advertised,” Burke says. “A very respected player, great leadership. He’s not young by any means, but he’s still in great shape. He played well for us.”
In making the roster, Kelly joins Mason Raymond, Maxim Lapierre, Rene Bourque and Derek Roy as Team Canada members with at least 500 NHL games. Their inclusions came at the expense of other NHL veterans like Max Talbot, Teddy Purcell and Jay McClement. “There were guys who were left off our team that offer great character and a lot of leadership. But there were players we felt that were just going to be more effective on the ice,” Burke says.
Kelly joked he used to like having a break while the better NHLers played in the Games. Now, like the other members of the team, he gets to relish an Olympic moment he never thought would be possible. “I remember when NHL players didn’t go to the Olympics,” Kelly says. “Being a kid, I was glued to the TV watching Petr Nedved or Paul Kariya [in 1994], cheering for them. Our mindset going over there is to represent our country as best as we can and put our best foot forward.”
Before the team headed to training camp in Riga, Latvia in late January, Burke was optimistic about its chances. “We’re going to be as prepared as any Canadian team that goes to the Olympics,” he said. “We won’t get outworked. What happens after that, there are a lot of other factors that you just can’t predict. But those things will be in place. That gives you a chance to compete for a gold medal. I have no doubt our guys will be ready.”
Burke counts character as the main hallmark of this team. It’s the trait that allowed Canada to hang tough in a 2-0 loss to a Russian squad that he felt was “better on paper” at the Channel One Cup in Moscow in December. “That was a big eye-opener,” Wolski says. “It showed us that we’re right there.” Adds Lee: “It gets us excited to know that we have that in us. That’s what we’re going to expect at the Olympics.”
When the tournament begins, Team Canada will feature the best goalie Burke could find, past accomplished scorers and balance up front, and a mobile defence. That last attribute is one Burke’s bullish on — even though the eight-man corps’ NHL games leader is Cody Goloubef at 129. “Vegas has been a great story of a team that is winning by a lineup that’s not made up of superstars — although they’ve got some very good players. It’s more about the way they play,” Burke says, bringing things back to that other group of undervalued talents. “We’re not made up of two or three superstars and then the rest of the guys. We’ve got a lot of depth, a lot of guys that are fairly similar throughout our lineup.”
How they got to this point is anything but similar, however, apart from one key characteristic. As Kelly says: “Everyone’s got a great story in terms of perseverance.”
The stories are different, but somewhere along the line these players’ NHL dreams were all shortchanged. The result: an unexpected chance at an Olympic gold in 2018. Their best shot at accomplishing that goal comes down to whether they can set aside the different paths that brought them to Pyeongchang and instead find whatever it is that will bind them together.
“It is a short tournament,” Kelly says. “The quicker you can come together as a group and play for each other and buy in, the more success you’ll have.”
Big Read: The oral history of the '94 Olympic hockey tournament
The last time the men's Olympic hockey tournament was played without NHLers, Team Canada was an underdog, but that didn't deter the players. Here, in their own words, is the story of that Cinderella run to silver.