That hope you’ve been keeping alive about the NHL sending its players to the 2018 Winter Olympic hockey tournament? It took its last breath on Tuesday morning, as Hockey Canada announced its management staff and the timeline for how Team Canada will be built for the Pyeongchang Games.
Willie Desjardins, last seen getting fired by the Vancouver Canucks, is the head coach for the Canadian men’s national team. Sean Burke, former Canadian Olympic goalie and current Montreal Canadiens scout, is the team’s general manager. Martin Brodeur, whom you may have heard of, is one of the team’s managerial assistants.
Dave King, Scott Walker and Craig Woodcroft are the assistant coaches. In King and Woodcroft, Team Canada has two coaches with a wealth of international experience.
With the NHL on the sidelines for the Olympics, the first thing Hockey Canada needed in a coach was availability. Desjardins was fired in April after going 109-110-27 for a .498 points percentage in three years as Canucks coach. The team made the playoffs with 101 points in his first season, but then the team downshifted into a rebuild, notching just 69 points last season.
Desjardins, 60, was a coach in the WHL for nine years before becoming an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars from 2010-12. He was the head coach of the Texas Stars in the AHL from 2012-14, winning the Calder Cup in his second season before the Canucks hired him. Desjardins was also an assistant coach with Canada’s National Men’s Team in 1998-99, including at the 1999 IIHF World Championship.
“The one thing we can count on that our team will be as prepared as anyone else,” said Burke, setting a somewhat low bar for Team Canada’s coaching staff.
Desjardins was all maple leafs and glowing hearts. “I’ve been able to see our flag go through the rink, and I’ll never forget when I first saw it. To stand on the blue line and hear our anthem. It just gives you chills,” he said. “Canada is a such a great nation, and the Olympics are the biggest sporting event.”
Now we know who will build and coach the team.
So who’s actually going to play for Team Canada?
The process begins on Aug. 6 at the Sochi Hockey Open in Russia, and then continues on Aug. 14 at the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov in St. Petersburg. Team Canada will play in both, giving team management a chance to see “45 Canadian players, representative of four international teams,” according to Scott Salmond, VP of hockey operations and national men’s teams.
The current Team Canada roster includes former NHL players like forwards Gilbert Brulé, Andrew Ebbett, Rob Klinkhammer, Daniel Paille, Mason Raymond, goalie Justin Peters and Max Talbot, who is a forward but also deserves special mention here because he’s Max Talbot.
“These first two events allow us to continue a player evaluation process that began last season with our Deutschland Cup and Spengler Cup teams,” said Salmond.
There’s another international tournament in November in Zurich, and then one in Helsinki against five of the top hockey nations. The Channel One Cup in Moscow will offer another look in December. That’s five tournaments in seven months.
During the latter part of 2017, Team Canada will evaluate its players on their respective club teams. That includes players in North America – the AHL has said that “teams were informed they could loan players on AHL contracts to national teams for the purposes of participating in the Pyeongchang Olympics” as long as those players aren’t on NHL contracts.
The roster will be selected, and then Team Canada meets for the first time on Feb. 4 in Seoul. The players and coaches will have 10 days to prepare for their Olympic opening game against the Swiss on Feb. 14, 2018.
Look, we all wanted the NHL to play in the Olympics, even though there are no tangible benefits to the NHL because the IOC is unmatched in its avarice. The hockey is amazing, the drama is fantastic and the stakes are never higher for a “best on best” tournament.
But since we can’t have nice things, here’s what we have instead: a fascinating process playing out for Team Canada and Team USA (which will hold their press conference in early August) as they give kids, journeymen and over-the-hill veterans a crack at Olympic glory, just like it used to be before the NHL elbowed into the club.
If we can’t have the best hockey players in the world this time around, let’s relish the underdog spectacle of this team building, which would have made a great 1990s sports comedy plot, with Dennis Farina as Willie Desjardins and probably Jason Priestley as some guy who was playing in the Swiss league.
You know, back when Canada could actually be the underdog in an international tournament ….
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