News of the NHL bowing out of the Olympics gut-punched the hockey world, but the Olympic nations were prepared for it. Canada has been building a contingency plan all year, led by Sean Burke.
The dream of watching NHLers compete in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics is over for anyone but the sunniest of optimists. If the players’ reactions to the news the league won’t send them to the Winter Games is any indication, we’ll see dozens of elite players leave their teams mid-season to go represent their countries anyway, but this will not be a best-on-best tournament. It will, at best, be a tourney that pits teams peppered with a few of their top talents against each other. At worst, it’ll be a second-rate event.
Still, in the hockey-mad countries, the event will remain must-see TV. That obviously includes Canada. The person tasked with building the team has typically earned more national press than most high-ranking politicians. From Wayne Gretzky to Steve Yzerman, Canada’s Hockey Czar will remain a high-profile position for Pyeongchang. It’ll actually be more important. What’s tougher: trotting Sidney Crosby, Drew Doughty and Carey Price out there and saying “go win,” or building a ragtag team of second-tier pro competitors?
We know Yzerman is done as Canada’s architect. He stepped down from the gig after the 2014 Sochi Games yielded a second straight gold medal. So who is tasked with running Canada’s contingency-plan squad? Flyers GM Ron Hextall will build Canada’s 2017 World Championship team, but that will consist of NHLers. It likely won’t be him.
Hockey Canada has someone else hand picked and has been preparing for the bad news for at least a year.
“Today’s statement by the NHL is not what we were hoping for because, ultimately, we want best-on-best at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games which, for us at Hockey Canada, includes the participation of NHL players,” said Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney in a statement following the news Monday. “This does not change our preparation for the Games – we have developed both a Plan A and a Plan B, and will be ready to move forward. However, for the next month, our priority is the 2017 IIHF World Championship, and we will be ready to advance the required plan following that event.”
How did they start preparing plan B? They tasked someone with scouting the alternate player pool and building a team. His name is Sean Burke.
We know him of course as a long-time NHL goaltender and, over the past couple decades, as one of the game’s absolute best goaltending gurus. This season he became Hockey Canada’s prime wrangler of men’s talent. He was GM of the 2017 Spengler Cup and 2017 Deutschland Cup squads, and it wasn’t a random hire. Burke was specifically brought in with an eye to start scouting for Canada in the event the NHL pulled out of the Olympics.
“That was very good foresight on Hockey Canada to put a plan in place,” Burke said. “That was the idea from Day 1 this year, to evaluate as many players as we can who are in Europe, as many Canadians playing outside the NHL and use the tournaments to evaluate. We’ve now done that for two tournaments, so we have a very good book on who is available.”
You’ll recognize a handful of ex-NHLers on both squads. Names that jump out include Derek Roy, Mason Raymond, Brandon Kozun, Nick Spaling, Brandon Gormley and James Sheppard. Canada’s team thus wouldn’t be a joke by any means. Still, we can’t perfectly compare the 2018 squad to 1994 squad from the last time the NHL didn’t go to the Olympics.
Corey Hirsch, the goaltender from Canada’s silver-medal Lillehammer team, points out that the men had a centralized team back then, that they travelled the world together and bonded significantly, as the Canadian women do today. Guys like Paul Kariya, Brian Savage and Petr Nedved had already been his teammates all year by the time the ’94 Winter Games rolled around. So the modern version of the team will have to gel far quicker. Hirsch, however, still believes the nation will fall in love with whoever dons the sweater.
“As far as the hockey goes, it’s still going to be exciting,” he said. “It’s still going to be great hockey. That’s not the issue. Because Canada’s finally going to be an underdog team again, you’re going to be cheering for these kids to beat the Russians, KHL players.”
Even if Alex Ovechkin weren’t planning to lead a full coup that puts every top Russian in Pyeongchang, his country will draw some big names from the KHL, such as Ilya Kovalchuk, Ilya Samsonov and Kirill Kaprizov, and be a runaway gold favorite. Canada, though, could even still be a medal contender. It would have decent choices in net, from Zach Fucale to Drew McIntyre.
And Canada would have more than just those tournament teams to draw from, of course. Other players available from top European men’s pro leagues could include goaltender Ben Scrivens and center Maxime Talbot, for example. High-end prospects such as Nolan Patrick, expected to be a top-two pick in the 2017 draft, could play on the team. What about older prospects who are no longer eligible for the world juniors but could compete in the tourney for additional seasoning? Dylan Strome immediately comes to mind. It’s still relatively unclear right now whether NHL teams would view the Olympic no-show as an absolute and exclude their farmhands. The guess here, though, is they wouldn’t. If Strome, for example, didn’t crack the Coyotes out of camp next year, the Coyotes would have far more to gain than to lose by letting him play against men in Pyeongchang.
Dave Andrews, President of the AHL, told THN Wednesday he expects his league will defer to NHL teams’ GMs when it comes to lending personnel for Olympic teams. He estimates he could lose up to 60 players during an NHL-free Winter Games. He said the AHL would not pause its schedule during an Olympic break, but the prospect of losing his players during that time doesn’t faze him at all.
“The big thing to remember is we’re used to having our top players moving back and forth to the NHL,” Andrews said. “It’s not as though the integrity of our competition is diminished by allowing some of the top players to be invited. Typically, at any given time, we have 30 of 40 players on recall to the NHL that are very important players to our teams. That’s life in the American Hockey League.”
Players from NCAA Div. I schools would also likely get a chance to compete. Participation eligibility will be determined in the months to come – unless the NHL’s decision really was a bluff, if you believe that. In the meantime, the national team talent hawks will be hard at work, perhaps none more than Burke, whose job will be as scrutinized as any GM’s.
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