This is not the Olympic men’s hockey tournament that Canadians anticipated. The first for the likes of Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and Mitch Marner, perhaps the last chance for another Golden Goal by Sidney Crosby.
There is no Auston Matthews nor a Tkachuk or two lining up for the Americans. Ovi is out for Russia. There is a Lean (Bergmann) playing for Germany but no Leon (Draisaitl). The Danes will make a debut at the Winter Games without Frederik Andersen in the net.
Fans everywhere looked forward to the return of NHL players in Beijing. Instead of competing on the world’s biggest stage, they will be in Canada and the United States making up some of the more than 100 games postponed this season because of COVID-19.
After participating in five successive Winter Olympics, NHL players skipped the 2018 Games in South Korea but were to compete in 2022 and 2026 as part of an agreement negotiated with the league.
The NHL opted out six weeks ago, however, and that caused a number of teams from 12 countries to engage in last-minute searches for athletes. Rosters were reconstructed by enlisting former NHLers, players from the KHL and other leagues in Europe and from the college ranks and major-junior level.
There is enough of a mixture of guys who are a bit past their prime and others who are relatively unknown or waiting to be discovered to make the outcome more inscrutable than usual.
Russia won in 2018 and should be counted as the favourite. China is new to this and Olympic officials are worried its inclusion could be an embarrassment. Denmark gets points for qualifying for the first time but has little chance. Six of its players missed practice because of illness on Thursday.
The Americans will likely be competitive even with a squad largely recruited from the NCAA. Toss them into the blender with everyone else.
Canada has assembled an interesting group that is potentially medal worthy. Some are NHL castoffs playing out their careers in other countries. Some are youngsters filled with promise. Others are veterans who hope a good performance in Beijing will earn them one last shot at the big time.
The team trained in Switzerland for eight days before it travelled to China. Its first game in the preliminary round is Feb. 10 against Germany. The Canadians then play the United States on Feb. 12 and conclude round-robin play in Group A against China on Feb. 13.
Eric Staal, the team captain, is 37 and played 17 seasons in the NHL. After helping the Montreal Canadiens reach the Stanley Cup final last summer, he became a free agent.
As COVID-19 ravaged the league, he skated and stayed in shape and hoped somebody would call. Nobody called.
When the league pulled its players from the Winter Games, there he was with hand raised.
Perhaps because he had become a pest around the house, his wife and three boys urged him on.
“They were pumped,” Staal said. “They really pushed me to be here. They were over the moon when I got this chance.”
Staal won one Stanley Cup with Carolina and a gold medal in Vancouver in 2010 on a line beside Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla. A second would look great on his résumé when viewed by teams looking to bolster their lineups for the NHL playoffs.
“We’ve got great players, but we need to perform as a team and we need to have everybody on board,” Staal said. “It’s a tough tournament to win. You need everything to line up correctly.”
Jeremy Colliton, the Canadians’ coach, has other veterans to draw on including David Desharnais, Jason Demers, Mark Barberio and Adam Cracknell.
Desharnais, 35, was a productive centre for Montreal for eight years and was recruited from a team in the Swiss elite league. Demers, 33, played 699 games as a defenceman in the NHL, the last in 2021 for the Arizona Coyotes. Barberio, 31, played defence for three NHL teams and has been toiling in the KHL. A right wing, Cracknell, 36, played for seven NHL teams and has spent the past two seasons in the AHL.
“This is a great honour for me,” Demers said. “It is going to be an amazing experience.
“We have a collective group of 25 to 30 guys all pushing in one direction. It is in our hearts and minds and when that happens a team is hard to stop.”
Among Canada’s young players, the best is 19-year-old Owen Power. The 6-foot-6 defenceman was chosen first in the 2021 draft by the Buffalo Sabres and is currently attending the University of Michigan.
“I had heard about him and the other day I caught myself watching him a bit,” Demers said last week. “He is very impressive.
“He reminds me a bit of [Tampa Bay’s] Victor Hedman. I am sure he could have played in the NHL immediately and that Buffalo would have won another 10 or 15 games.”
Other newcomers to watch include forward Mason McTavish and goalie Devon Levi.
A 19-year-old centre, McTavish was taken by Anaheim with the third selection in the 2021 entry draft and had two goals and an assist in games when he began the year with the Ducks. He was then sent to the OHL for more seasoning.
Levi, 20, had a .964 save percentage and led Canada to a gold medal at the 2021 world junior championship. He has started 24 consecutive games for Northeastern University in Boston this season and has a 16-7-1 record with a .948 save percentage. Northeastern is a top NCAA Division I program.
“Any time I have ever had success with a team, it has come because we had a good balance of youth and experience,” Staal said. “This seems like a great group and I like our balance.”
Canada was upset by Germany in the semi-final in South Korea four years ago, but rebounded to capture a bronze medal. Canada won the men’s gold in 2002, 2010 and 2014.
Perhaps the most intriguing among the Canadians in the midst of trying to rebuild his career is Josh Ho-Sang, the 26-year-old forward who signed a professional tryout offer with the Maple Leafs this summer and has been playing for the Marlies, their AHL affiliate.
A first-round draft pick of the New York Islanders in 2014, Ho-Sang has spent parts of three star-crossed seasons in the NHL. In 2019, after he showed up late for camp, the Islanders immediately sent him back to the minor leagues.
“I would have laughed in your face only months ago if you told me I would be at the Olympics,” Ho-Sang said last week. “The fact that I was even on anybody’s radar was amazing to me.
“I am continuing to try to grow as a person and a player. It is not an easy task but it is nice to know you are on the right track.”
Ho-Sang, who is from Toronto originally, said he owes a debt of gratitude to the Maple Leafs and general manager Kyle Dubas for giving him a chance.
“This wouldn’t have been possible without them,” Ho-Sang said. “It seems like I matter there and that inspires me to be better on and off the ice. I feel like I have a stake in something.”
Ho-Sang would love to be called up to the Maple Leafs. If any other team shows interest in him after the Olympics, he may defer.
“I am so grateful for everything Toronto has done for me,” Ho-Sang said. “I would take that into consideration very heavily. This is not something I would throw away.”
For now, his mind is set on helping Team Canada.
“It would be an injustice to myself to look beyond the opportunity I have right now. It is once in a lifetime and very fleeting.”
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