Canada’s Olympic hopefuls have just finished playing two tournaments in Russia in the hopes of taking a first step towards making the national Olympic team for next February.
One group of 21 skaters played at a pre-season tournament in Sochi, and a week later another 21 played in St. Petersburg, all under the watchful eyes of general manager Sean Burke and head coach Willie Desjardins. Both teams won two games and lost one against the opponents, mostly teams from the Russian KHL, but that was not really the point.
“We went into the tournaments focusing on evaluation,” Burke said. “Of course, we wanted to win, but first and foremost it was an opportunity to evaluate. We came away with lots of information. We came away with a better sense of all of the players.”
All players are active in Europe, and it is from this group of 45 that Burke and his staff will choose most of the final Olympic team for PyeongChang next February.
“I would say that the majority of the guys that we’re going to use at the Olympics in February will be made up of the guys we just saw,” Burke confirmed. “Although there are some other players we do need to see. They were very successful events and a great opportunity to evaluate, and a couple of great games for August.”
Coach Desjardins was impressed by what he saw given that it’s the middle of the summer. “It was a great tournament to work again with Hockey Canada,” he enthused. “There were some very good players in those games. The first ten minutes of the first game showed outstanding speed. I was surprised. I think our games were some of the best in the tournament.”
In addition to 42 skaters, the Canadians played three goalies equally over the two tournaments. “All three goalies played very well,” Burke, a former standout goalie, noted. “They all played two games. Poulin is not currently on a team but stepped right in and played against a tough Russian team in Sochi. Early he was nervous and then settled in and performed really well. Justin Peters was very solid and Ben Scrivens, I thought, was outstanding. It’s a long way to February, but as of today I think we have three quality goaltenders. They’re all capable.”
Burke is perhaps an ideal candidate to act as the team’s GM. He passed his first big test with flying colours last year, putting together a team of Europeans at the last minute who won the Spengler Cup. But more important, he played for Canada’s National Team leading up to and including the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, the last time Canada’s teams were put together in such a manner (in addition to 1994) before the NHL joined the Olympics between 1998 and 2014.
“We had a full-time national program then that we don’t have now,” Burke reminisced, to compare 1992 to 2018. “There’s a lot you can do when you have a team together for a full year and longer in those days. Now, we’re trying to bring the team together as quickly as possible, so the players can play together as many times as possible before the Olympics. We also know there are guys between now and February that may play well who didn’t play here and others who did play and may struggle, but we have to make decisions probably before the ideal time.”
The time line is simple for Burke. Make decisions quickly and then give coach and players time to cohere. “Our first goal is to have a large part of our final roster ready in time for the Karjala Tournament in November,” Burke explained. “There will be some changes after that, but we need to get the group together by then. And then we’ll be better prepared for another tournament in Moscow in December. Right now, we have a good handle on our players and that’s why we just played these two events.”
Among the changes high on Burke’s wish list are adding one or two aging NHLers not yet signed to a contract, but it’s not as easy as it seems. Names that jump out include Jarome Iginla and Shane Doan.
“I was on the phone this morning trying to get a sense from their agents of what their status is,” Burke revealed, “but it’s more than just guys being available. It’s a long-term plan. If anyone is going to play in the Olympics, there has to be a plan for the full year. It has to include league play. I mean, we just played games in August, and the intensity was very good. That’s only going to increase, so anyone who’s going to play on our team, no matter pedigree or past performance, has to be playing regularly all season.”
Given Canada’s roster of what will be lesser players than the country has been used to since 1998, expectations might be muted. But if that is the case, neither GM nor coach is giving anything away.
“We go into PyeongChang believing gold is realistic,” Burke said. “The last time that Canada wasn’t favoured was back in ’94, and I played in ’88 and ’92 so I remember those days very well. But even then, when the Russians were so powerful and the Czechs weren’t far behind, you still went into the Olympics expecting to compete for a gold. Nothing is going to change this time around. But we know there’s a lot of work to do and that things are different. We have to build our team differently. We’ll be as prepared as we can possibly be when we go into PyeongChang to compete for a gold, and that will give us a chance to win.”
Desjardins agreed: “We have lots of respect for the teams we’re going to be playing against and we know they’re going to be good, but we’re going to focus on us. I have lots of confidence in our players. When you play the right way, you have a chance to win. I always say you don’t have to be the best team in the tournament; you just have to be the best on that one day. We want to win. We want to challenge for a gold.”
Playing in and against teams from historical rival Russia is a big part of the preparation. Apart from the tournaments in August, Canada managed to make the Russians welcome them in December and extend the Channel One Cup in Moscow to six teams. Similarly the Karjala Tournament will be played with six teams with the addition of Canada and Switzerland. Canada will play its first game on 8th November in Biel, Switzerland, against the hosts. Its other games will be in Helsinki against Sweden (10th November) and host Finland (12th November).
The last test will be the traditional participation at the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland, 26-31 December 2017.
Team Canada at the Sochi Hockey Open (5-9 August 2017)
Goal: Justin Peters, Kevin Poulin
Defence: Chay Genoway, Geoff Kinrade, Jonathan Sigalet, Karl Stollery, Patrick McNeill, Jesse Blacker, Maxim Noreau
Forward: Ben Maxwell, Brandon Buck, Max Talbot, Wojtek Wolski, Andrew Ebbett, Bud Holloway, Brandon McMillan, Daniel Paille, Kevin Clark, Justin Azevedo, Greg Scott, Eric O’Dell, Brandon Kozun, Rob Klinkhammer, Mason Raymond, Gilbert Brule
1-0 win vs. HK Sochi
2-3 loss vs. Russia B
3-1 win vs. Metallurg Magnitogorsk
Team Canada at the Nikolai Puchkov Tournament (14-17 August 2017)
Goal: Ben Scrivens, Kevin Poulin
Defence: Marc-Andre Gragnani, Shawn Lalonde, Craig Schira, Can Barker, Carlo Colaiacovo, Stefan Elliott, Mat Robinson
Forward: Nick Petersen, James Wright, Jonathan Matsumoto, Paul Szczechura, David McIntyre, Andrew Gordon, Ryan Garbutt, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Cory Emmerton, Taylor Beck, Jacob Micflickier, Sean Collins, Trevir Parkes, Carter Ashton, Derek Roy
5-1 win vs. HK Sochi
0-3 loss vs. SKA St. Petersburg
4-0 win vs. SKA-Neva St. Petersburg