GANGNEUNG, Korea, Republic Of — Adrian Aucoin's strongest connection to former teammates isn't with the NHL players he skated alongside during his long pro career.
He acknowledges that there were some great memories and good friends in the NHL, but the bond that can't be broken rests with the group that battled against the odds to come within inches of winning an improbable hockey gold medal for Canada at the 1994 Olympics.
"I had a lot of great things happen to me in my pro career, but I played with hundreds of different players," said Aucoin. "I realized when I got older, you don't have that same connection with teammates.
"The Olympic team is one I'll never forget."
The defenceman spent two years with the Canadian squad ahead of the Lillehammer Games — the last tournament without NHL players before the league declined to participate in this month's Pyeongchang Olympics.
Just 19 when he joined the national team program in 1992, Aucoin travelled across Europe while learning the ropes and forming friendships that endure to this day.
"A lot of guys took care of me," the Ottawa native recalled in a recent phone interview. "Those guys were almost like my big brothers. Tom Renney was more of a dad than a coach."
Canada lost to Sweden in the Olympic final on Peter Forsberg's stunning one-handed shootout winner — continuing a string of 42 years without gold that wouldn't end until the NHLers finally got the job done in 2002.
But despite that crushing defeat in the Norwegian resort town, Todd Hulsko, a 24-year-old winger back in 1994, said it's like hopping in a time machine whenever he sees a Lillehammer teammate.
"Paul Kariya came to Toronto for his Hockey Hall of Fame induction ... I hadn't seen Paul in probably 15 years," said Hlushko, who works on Maple Leafs radio broadcasts. "Paul was walking down the hallway and I just called out to him and he turned around and without hesitation yells, 'Hlushko get over here!'
"We had a big hug and immediately it was like we're back in the locker-room."
Brian Savage and Dwayne Norris, both forwards on the team, live in the Detroit area and coach against each other in youth hockey.
Every so often, the conversation invariably switches back to their run to the gold-medal game that saw Canada, which wasn't expected to do much at the tournament, get past the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals before beating Finland in the semis.
"The group was special," said Norris. "Just the whole Olympic experience and the preparation going into it ... we instantly became lifelong friends."
Savage, who like Aucoin went on to have a solid NHL career, remembers players reading faxes — yes faxes — out loud from fans in their hometowns as a reminder the country was behind them, a pre-game tradition that brought the team even closer together.
"It's definitely unique. Most of us were together the whole year," said the Sudbury, Ont., product. "Some of those guys on that team are still some of my best friends to this day."
Renney, who had two years of experience coaching junior before joining the national program in 1992, said he's not surprised many of the players remain tight.
"It was a journey," said Renney, now the CEO of Hockey Canada. "We were just naive enough.
"We really needed each other to have success and really needed to trust each other and build a camaraderie that no matter what was going on around us, we weren't going to let each other down.
"That's a heck of a galvanizing influence in any walk of life."
Canadian goalie Corey Hirsch agreed that despite its bitter conclusion, 1993-94 was one of the best periods of his career.
"Most of us were between the ages of 20 and 25, we're all young and single, and we're all travelling Europe playing hockey," he said. "It was an amazing year. It was so much fun.
"Any time I see any of them there's still that bond and connection that will never go away."
Hlusko said while there's no plan to watch the 2018 Olympic tournament with any of his former teammates, the text messages will be no doubt flying starting Thursday when Canada opens against Switzerland.
"I guarantee there's going to be some very unique stories," said Hlusko. "These guys are going to be household names by the end of the Olympics.
"It's going to be something special and something these guys are going to remember forever."
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press