Claude Julien never once faulted his team’s heart or desire.
Canada’s Olympic men’s hockey coach was also acutely aware of its shortcomings.
“Everybody’s got a little bit of a wart in their game,” Julien said earlier this week in an eyebrow-raising moment of candour.
“It’s about trying to adjust with that and taking advantage of all their strengths.”
Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar et al. this certainly was not.
Canada’s roster of non-NHLers battled hard at the 2022 Winter Olympics under difficult circumstances.
And even though this iteration was never Beijing betting favourites, it still leaves bitterly disappointed.
The Canadians bowed out in the quarter-finals Wednesday, an exhausted group unable find another gear to break through against a well-drilled opponent in a low-event, 2-0 loss to Sweden.
One mistake was always going to be the difference.
Canada made it.
Jack McBain, a 22-year-old playing for Boston College in the NCAA, threw an ill-advised pass backwards in his own zone. Lucas Wallmark stole the puck from a surprised Eric O’Dell, a 31-year-old KHLer with 41 games of NHL experience, moved in and fired a shot off a defender’s stick that fooled the rock-solid Matt Tomkins midway through the third period.
Canada tried desperately to equalize, but never truly threatened – getting on the inside against the stifling Swedes was an issue all night – before the game was sealed into an empty net, resigning the hockey power to its first Olympics without a men’s medal since 2006.
“We tried our best,” said David Desharnais, a 35-year-old former NHLer playing in Europe. “Just wasn’t enough.”
Thrown together less than a month before the Games after the NHL withdrew because of COVID-19 concerns, Canada lost Julien to a freak accident prior to leaving its Swiss training camp, got him back, didn’t play any exhibition games and never had true on-ice cohesion.
The Canadians bookended round-robin wins over Germany and China with a costly defeat to the United States that pushed them into the tournament’s qualification round.
Canada managed to beat the Chinese, a young hockey country making its Olympic debut, a second time in Tuesday’s extra game, but well-rested Sweden was waiting.
“These guys are humans. They’re not machines,” Julien, who last coached in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens, said postgame Wednesday. “Fatigue factor came in, but I’m not using that as an excuse.
“The guys dug deep.”
Just not deep enough.
“Still a great experience being in China and getting to know these guys,” said 37-year-old captain Eric Staal, an Olympic champion in 2010 and a 2006 Stanley Cup winner hoping for another NHL shot. “Happy with how we competed.”
Maxim Noreau, one of three returnees from Canada’s team that won bronze when the NHL skipped the 2018 Games, said this one was more difficult because of the compressed time frame.
The roster four years ago had more tournaments, actual warm-up games, and a much longer runway to define roles and learn about each another.
“[Still] pretty remarkable how fast the guys became a family,” the 34-year-old said of the 2022 squad. “No egos. Everybody checks it at the door.”
Canada, however, was far from the only team facing adversity.
The U.S., which also lost in the quarters, chose a roster of mostly NCAA players with Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane and Adam Fox unavailable, while the Swedes didn’t have Victor Hedman, Gabriel Landeskog and Nicklas Backstrom at their disposal.
The rest of hockey’s big boys were in similar spots, although some countries’ players had more familiarity.
But the Canadians did have to deal with the curveball of losing Julien in a tobogganing accident at training camp during a team outing when he hit a tree, broke a rib, punctured a lung and required surgery.
Assistant coach Jeremy Colliton – the former Chicago Blackhawks bench boss – filled the void before Julien made a surprise return.
Canada, however, played its best game with Colliton calling the shots in its 5-1 victory over Germany with Julien taking notes in the stands.
“This group was pretty resilient,” said Julien, whose team watched Canada’s women beat the U.S. for gold Thursday in Beijing. “They never got rattled, they never got frustrated.
“They just rolled with the punches.”
Many of them also never really got going.
Having played just four AHL games in the lead-up since making the Stanley Cup final with Montreal last season, Staal didn’t look like himself despite the tournament being played on NHL-sized ice, while Josh Ho-Sang often skated into cul-de-sacs with the puck. Mason McTavish, the No. 3 overall selection at the 2021 NHL draft with a bullet shot and a bright future, also failed to make an impact on the big stage.
“There were moments where we were really solid,” Staal said. “And then moments where there were some mistakes that cost us.”
Canada got decent performances from some of its European and Russian-based pros, with Adam Tambellini putting up seven points, including five in the qualification round, while Jordan Weal added three goals.
Owen Power, the No. 1 pick last year, got better as the event progressed playing big minutes on the No. 1 defence pair in his latest taste of international hockey.
“A ton to learn on and off this off the ice,” said the 19-year-old. “A memory I’m going to remember for a lifetime.”
“I just wish as a coach, these guys would have been rewarded,” Julien added.
And while goaltending was never an issue, save for Edward Pasquale’s difficult afternoon against the U.S. before Tomkins took the reins, it was a curious decision to not have 20-year-old Devon Levi – MVP of the 2021 world junior hockey tournament and an NCAA standout – see a single minute of action.
While the situation presented unique challenges across the board, Tomkins pointed out the pandemic was the only reason this team got to compete in China.
“A double-edged sword,” he said. “Without it we wouldn’t be here. Lucky to have the opportunity to come and wear this jersey. I’m really proud of that.
“An experience I’ll forever be grateful for.”
And despite their deficiencies, one that will see them collectively wonder what might have been.
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