Canada Finds Itself in an Unusual Role: A Hockey Underdog

Canada Finds Itself in an Unusual Role: A Hockey Underdog


That honor goes to the Russians, or the “Olympic Athletes From Russia,” as they are being called during Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Although they have been notorious underperformers at recent Olympic tournaments, they are the most skilled team, with the former N.H.L. stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk.

The Canadian team, on the other hand, is made up of long shots. Forward Eric O’Dell, 27, who plays with HC Sochi in the K.H.L., was considered the longest shot.

In 2010, he was having heart palpitations, and doctors discovered he had a small hole in his heart, which had been there since birth. O’Dell underwent surgery and spent six months on the sidelines recovering.

When he showed up for a training camp in August, nobody thought he had a chance. The coaches thought he looked more like a biker than a hockey player, full of tattoos and his hair tied back in a ponytail. And on the ice, he was a less-than-graceful skater and puck handler.

“In his first practice, he didn’t look very good,” said Canada Coach Willie Desjardins, who coached the Vancouver Canucks in the N.H.L. from 2014 to 2017. “Guys are going, ‘This guy will never make it.’ But he finally worked his way onto the team.”

General Manager Sean Burke noticed that O’Dell had been named captain of his team in Russia, and suspected there was more to him than met the eye.

“You’re in Russia and the guys don’t speak English,” Burke said. “Having your captain being an English-speaking Canadian really says a lot about his character.”

Burke uses the word “character” a lot in describing this team, which he said will epitomize “the Canadian Way.” Usually that means having gobs more talent than any other team in the tournament. This year that means the team will not be outworked. Even the most skilled players are willing to accept lesser roles.

Only two players on the roster are without any N.H.L. experience, so Burke expects some to carry a chip on their shoulders.

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Willie Desjardins was named the Canada coach in July, a few months after being fired by the Vancouver Canucks.

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Grigory Dukor/Reuters

“The N.H.L. is the best league in the world, and I don’t think anybody would disagree with that,” he said. “But Canada still has a large pool of talent. Try to tell them it’s not the N.H.L. players, it’s not the best players in the world.”

In naming his team, Burke pulled together bits and pieces from six leagues, including 13 from the K.H.L., three from the American Hockey League and the rest from the Austrian, German, Swiss and Swedish leagues. Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews they are not.

Still, Derek Roy, a veteran center of 738 N.H.L. games who now plays in Sweden, has been preparing for this day longer than most people think.

“Everyone here has worked their entire lives to get to this point,” Roy said. “It’s not like all of a sudden one day they told us, ‘O.K., you can play in the Olympics.’”

The Canadian goaltenders are Kevin Poulin, 27, Justin Peters, 31, and Ben Scrivens, 31. Scrivens, who plays for Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the K.H.L., has the most N.H.L. experience of the three, with 130 starts. But he has bounced around since struggling as the Edmonton Oilers starter during the 2014-15 season.

Peters plays in Germany, which is not among the top three leagues in Europe, and Poulin plays even further from the upper echelon of the sport — on a Croatian team in the Austrian league. Poulin at least had a 36-save shutout performance for Canada in December in the final of the Spengler Cup, an international invitational tournament.

Defensemen Chris Lee, 37, and Mat Robinson, 31, don’t have any N.H.L. experience. Then again, Chris Kelly, Rene Bourque and Roy have each racked up more than 700 N.H.L. games. The down side — Kelly, Bourque and Roy are 37, 36, and 34.

“For me, at this age in my career, I just wanted an opportunity to win something big because I didn’t get a chance to win a Stanley Cup,” said Bourque, who plays with Djurgarden in the Swedish league.

Lee and Kelly are the oldest players at 37, while Christian Thomas, 25, the son of the former N.H.L. player Steve Thomas, is the youngest. Hockey Canada officials scouted junior and college players, but ultimately decided they were too inexperienced and raw for such a big stage.

Although it is without marquee names, the team is not completely lacking talent, at least on paper. Linden Vey, 26, is among the scoring leaders in the K.H.L. Kelly, Wolski, Bourque and Mason Raymond have each registered 20-goal seasons in the N.H.L. Roy scored 32 goals for the Buffalo Sabres in 2007-8.

Kelly won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011; Marc-Andre Gragnani was named best defenseman in the A.H.L. in 2010-11; and Bourque was the A.H.L. rookie of the year in 2004-05. Three players — Wolski, Gilbert Brule and Quinton Howden — were first-round N.H.L. draft picks. Defenseman Maxim Noreau, 30, was the team’s top scorer at the Spengler Cup, with seven points.

Canada’s other challenge, aside from a suboptimal roster, is overcoming a lack of team chemistry and familiarity. In seven pre-Olympic tournaments, Canada dressed a different roster each time.

“The smaller countries like Switzerland, their pool is not as big,” said Burke, a two-time Olympian. “So when they get together as a national team, they know who their team is going to be for the most part.”

The Canadian team was together for only two weeks before the Olympics, forcing an accelerated team-building process. For the coaches, that meant implementing their systems quickly, and for the players, that meant building camaraderie.

“That’s going to be our biggest challenge,” Desjardins said. “You’re trying to do a lot in a short period of time.”



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