VANCOUVER – With less than four months to go till the Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament kicks off in Sochi, Canada’s hopefuls are setting their sights on roster spots. But it won’t be easy.
Barring illness or injury, between 10 and 12 stars are assured a place with the defending champions, and most are veterans of the 2010 team. Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Shea Weber fit that description. Meanwhile, the likes of Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, and Claude Giroux are on the fast track to making their Olympic debut in Russia.
Still, the forecast is murky in so many regards, because Canada has greater depth than any other nation.
In goal, there are choices aplenty, although this time, it’s fundamentally because no one has separated himself from the pack so far.
Roberto Luongo backstopped Canada to gold with four straight elimination victories in Vancouver, taking the reins after Martin Brodeur faltered in a 5-3 round-robin loss to the United States. But that won’t guarantee the 34-year-old Montreal native a roster spot this time.
After languishing in limbo as Cory Schneider’s backup with the Canucks over the last year or so, Luongo’s now trying to rebuild his reputation as a starter. And for Canada, he’s up against Montreal’s Carey Price and Phoenix’s Mike Smith in the quest for the number one job, as well as international newbies like Chicago’s Corey Crawford and Washington’s Braden Holtby. Even Pittsburgh’s Marc-André Fleury, widely written off after two straight playoff flops, could be back in the mix with his strong start to 2013/2014.
As the Olympics approach, is making the Canadian team something Luongo will use as motivation, or will he try to block it out?
“Obviously it’s a little bit of extra motivation, but I want to win,” Luongo said, putting the focus on his performance with the Canucks. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an Olympic year or not. I’m not getting any younger. I just want to win some hockey games and go as far as we can in the playoffs. Hopefully we’ll be back where we were a few years ago.”
Luongo has represented Canada internationally nine times, capturing World Championship gold in 2003 and 2004. Despite totalling a save percentage of 92.0 or better in nearly every case, he’s not willing to concede that his past experience gives him an edge with the Hockey Canada brass.
“I’m a goalie, I’m not part of the management,” said Luongo. “All I can do is play the best I can and try to be on top of my game. If I do that, I like my chances. That’s really the only answer I have.”
Luongo’s teammate Dan Hamhuis also might or might not be making the long flight to Sochi. The 30-year-old defenceman plays a quiet, poised game – punctuated by the occasional spectacular hip check – and he’s won five IIHF medals, including gold at the 2007 Worlds in Russia.
“I’ve played six [IIHF] tournaments on the big ice,” said Hamhuis. “It certainly is a little bit of a different game, and there’s a bit of an adjustment. I think having done that quite a bit now, it may be an easier transition for me if I get that chance.”
Hamhuis doesn’t bring as much offensive upside as, say, reigning Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, but he knows his mandate isn’t to imitate Bobby Orr.
“I’m going to have to have a good start to the season here,” said Hamhuis. “There were so many good players at that [Olympic orientation] camp. It’s going to be difficult. I just need to play my game as best I can, a two-way game, focusing on solid defence. If that’s the type of player they’re looking for, hopefully I can be a fit.”
Both Luongo and Hamhuis suffered some adversity when the defenceman inadvertently scored an own goal on his netminder, giving Montreal the winner in Vancouver’s 4-1 home loss on October 12.
Compared to Hamhuis, Jordan Eberle of the Edmonton Oilers is in a similar boat in terms of IIHF experience. At just 23 years of age, he’s already played in four consecutive IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships dating back to 2010. Even though Canada exited each of those tournaments in the quarter-finals, the nifty right winger has performed well, amassing nine goals and 12 assists in 27 career games.
Eberle is following a pattern similar to that of teammate Ryan Smyth, who played at all the Worlds from 1999 to 2006, and gained the nickname “Captain Canada.” Smyth likely wouldn’t have secured his place at two Olympics (2002, 2006) if he hadn’t thus paid his dues.
If Oilers power forward Taylor Hall cracks the 2014 Olympic lineup too, that would be a dream come true for Eberle. The two have worn the red Maple Leaf twice on the same team, at the 2010 World Juniors (silver) and this year’s Worlds (fifth place).
“We’ve gone through everything together and we’ve played a lot together,” said Eberle. “Taylor is a good friend, an exciting player to watch and a good player to play with. It would be great to play with him there.”
Hall’s hopes, however, took a big hit when a knee injury in an October game against Ottawa sidelined him for four weeks.
Eberle and Hall are both keenly aware that they’re among Canada’s boys on the bubble, especially considering Edmonton’s dismal start. There’s a lot of work to be done between now and December in terms of convincing Canadian executive director Steve Yzerman.
“Team Canada has such an amazing amount of talent that you could make two teams and both would be good,” said Eberle.
It’s an age-old problem that other international hockey powers would love to have.